Criminal Acts Can Lead to Wrongful Death Claims
To this day, people still remember the O. J. Simpson murder trial, which ended with a not-guilty verdict in October 1995. About one year later, however, Simpson returned to court to face a civil wrongful death suit filed by the victims’ families. The families prevailed in that trial, gaining awards of $8.5 in damages and $25 million in punitive damages in a California court.
Although many people assume a criminal acquittal would eliminate the possibility of a successful civil lawsuit, these cases involve separate and distinct processes with very different rules. Just as the families won their wrongful death case against O. J. Simpson, anyone who loses a loved one due to a criminal can often successfully pursue compensation in a civil case.
Criminal and Civil Cases Have Different Rules of Evidence
Anyone who watches criminal courtroom dramas on TV or at the movies knows the phrase, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is an important jury instruction that essentially states that jurors cannot convict a defendant unless they find that the evidence leaves no doubt that the person is guilty of the charges. This strict standard is of particular importance in murder trials when you consider that the North Carolina Department of Safety listed 150 offenders on death row as of the end of 2014.
Wrongful death cases, on the other hand, follow North Carolina civil law. Since a guilty verdict does not yield jail time or other criminal penalties, civil suits generally follow a different standard of proof. Juries can consider defendants guilty based on a preponderance of evidence. This basically means that the jury (or a judge in a bench trial) believes that the evidence makes it more likely than not that the charges are true. Even when a judge elevates the standards to clear and convincing evidence, it is clear that a person who was acquitted in the criminal courts can face stiff penalties in a civil trial.
NC Families Can Pursue Compensation for a Variety of Losses in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
No monetary award can truly compensate families for the needless loss of a loved one. However, North Carolina statutes allow families to pursue damages that can help them move forward. Damages recoverable for death by a wrongful act include the following:
- All medical costs sustained by the victim prior to death
- Allowances for the pain and suffering of the victim prior to death
- Funeral expenses
- Loss of monetary income, services, companionship and advice and support from the victim
- Punitive damages in certain situations
Timing Can be Important in a NC Wrongful Death Case
When a criminal act results in death, the criminal trial is likely to take place before any civil action begins, as was the case in the O. J. Simpson trials. However, it is important to understand that the North Carolina statute of limitations sets a time limit of two years to file a lawsuit, beginning on the date of death.
There are a number of exceptions that can extend the statute of limitations, but it is important to seek advice from experienced Charlotte wrongful death lawyers to preserve the right to seek justice after a tragic loss. For sensitive guidance and support, call us at 844-452-3688, or use our convenient online contact form.