The difference between wrongful death and a criminal case (like murder) can be quite confusing. To the inexperienced, both seem deserving of the same penalty because an individual dies in both cases. However, there are actually three main distinctions that separate them. The victim’s loved ones may find it challenging to proceed to a complex case. But with the help of a skilled legal professional, such as a personal injury attorney, the proper compensation would be received.

Civil vs. Criminal Cases

Before we understand what a wrongful death is, we should first tackle the difference between criminal and civil cases. In the United States, there are two main types of lawsuits: civil and criminal. Civil lawsuits do NOT directly lead to incarceration as a penalty. Unless new evidence comes to light that the government needs to be involved, penalty for civil cases result in financial compensation. Criminal cases on the other hand, almost always lead to some form of imprisonment – or even death – should the defendant be found guilty.

What Separates Wrongful Death from Murder

As previously mentioned, there are three main distinctions between a wrongful death case and a murder:

the entity who files the lawsuit
• level of intent
• burden of proof

As wrongful death claims are civil cases, they are filed by individuals – specifically, the deceased person’s family (spouse, sibling, parents, grandparents, or legal dependents). Murder cases being criminal lawsuits, are filed by the state.


Wrongful death claims are typically caused by civil negligence. For example: a pedestrian was hit by a vehicle because it made a wrong turn at a red light. The driver reasoned that he didn’t see the pedestrian. The victim died from the sustained injuries of the accident. If the person had survived, that would’ve been grounds for a personal injury lawsuit. As the person passed away, his family can file for wrongful death in his place. Meanwhile, murder entails some form of criminal intent (or purpose). Determining the exact scope of criminal intents are complicated; so it’s best to seek legal counsel from an attorney regarding this matter.

‘Burden of proof’ refers to the duty or obligation of the defendant to prove or disprove a statement. In a wrongful death proceeding, the plaintiff’s legal representative must show that the defendant was at least 51% responsible for the victim’s death. This means that the defendant’s actions were ‘more likely than not’ the cause why the person passed away. Whereas in a criminal case, the government prosecutor should be able to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the defendant is guilty. If the judge and jury agree that incarceration – or even death – is the right form of punishment, then it shall be carried out.

What’s My Case?

To truly gauge the nature of your case, please seek guidance from an experienced personal injury lawyer, who also specializes in wrongful deaths. It can be very difficult to determine if your case is that of wrongful death, or if it can be escalated into murder. To avoid confusion, as well as know what type of compensation you will receive; contact your local California personal injury attorney today.

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