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Florida Personal Injury Lawyers / Blog / General / The Intersection of Criminal and Civil Justice in Wrongful Death Cases

The Intersection of Criminal and Civil Justice in Wrongful Death Cases


When it comes to legal proceedings, wrongful death cases occupy a unique space where the paths of criminal and civil justice intersect. This intersection raises intricate questions about how criminal proceedings can influence civil lawsuits, particularly in the context of wrongful death claims in Florida.

Wrongful Death in Florida

Wrongful death claims in Florida are governed by the Florida Wrongful Death Act, found in Sections 768.16-768.26 of the Florida Statutes. These laws allow certain family members or the estate of the deceased to seek compensation for losses resulting from a death caused by the wrongful act, negligence, default, breach of contract, or warranty of another person or entity. The essence of a wrongful death claim is to provide relief to survivors and the estate for their losses associated with the decedent’s death.

The Dual Nature of Legal Proceedings

It’s crucial to understand that criminal and civil cases operate under different legal standards and objectives. Criminal cases are brought by the state and require proving the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” to achieve a conviction, focusing on punishment such as imprisonment or fines. Civil cases, on the other hand, seek to resolve disputes between individuals or entities over legal responsibilities and damages, with a “greater weight of the evidence” as the standard of proof—essentially, whether something is more likely true than not.

Impact of Criminal Proceedings on Civil Wrongful Death Claims

However, the outcome of criminal proceedings can significantly impact subsequent civil wrongful death lawsuits in several ways:

Evidentiary Influence: A guilty plea and/or criminal conviction can serve as compelling evidence in a civil case. While the higher standard of proof in criminal cases does not directly translate to civil liability, a conviction can be a persuasive factor indicating the defendant’s responsibility for the wrongful death.

Estoppel Principles: Under certain circumstances, the doctrine of collateral estoppel may prevent a defendant from relitigating in a civil case any fact that was already determined in the criminal proceeding. This means if a criminal court finds the defendant guilty of actions leading to the wrongful death, the defendant may be estopped from arguing differently in the civil lawsuit.

Public Perception and Settlement Negotiations: A criminal conviction can also influence public perception and the dynamics of settlement negotiations in the civil case. Knowing that a criminal court found the defendant guilty may make it more challenging for the defendant to negotiate from a position of strength in civil proceedings.

Impact on Damages: While the existence of a criminal conviction does not automatically increase the damages awarded in a civil wrongful death case, it can influence the jury’s perception of the case and, consequently, the amount of damages they are willing to award.

No Requirement for a Criminal Conviction

It’s important to note that a criminal conviction is not a prerequisite for pursuing a civil wrongful death claim. The civil system’s lower standard of proof means that even if a defendant is acquitted in a criminal trial, they can still be found liable in a civil lawsuit.

The famous case of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges in criminal court but found liable in civil court for wrongful death, is a prime example of this distinction.

Strategic Considerations for Attorneys

The strategic implications of concurrent or preceding criminal proceedings are crucial for attorneys handling wrongful death claims in Florida. This includes timing the civil lawsuit to benefit from any evidence or admissions from the criminal case, as well as managing clients’ expectations regarding the differences in legal standards and potential outcomes.

Contact Smith, Ball, Báez & Prather

The intersection of criminal and civil justice in wrongful death cases presents a complex array of legal, strategic, and emotional considerations. For the families of wrongful death victims in Florida, navigating this landscape requires skilled legal guidance to effectively leverage the outcomes of criminal proceedings in pursuit of civil justice.

While a criminal conviction can bolster a wrongful death claim, the absence of one does not preclude the pursuit of civil remedies. Ultimately, the goal of a wrongful death lawsuit is to seek compensation for the survivors’ loss, a pursuit that stands on its own merits within the civil justice system.

For more detailed information on wrongful death claims and related statutes in Florida, referring to the Florida Wrongful Death Act (Sections 768.16-768.26 of the Florida Statutes) is recommended. This legal framework provides the foundation for understanding and pursuing wrongful death claims within the state, offering a critical resource for those affected by such profound losses.

Contact Smith, Ball, Báez & Prather, Florida Injury Lawyers to schedule a consultation.



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