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What Is the Difference Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Wrongful Death Claim in California?

coffin being carried

Wrongful death can lead to both a criminal and a civil case, but these paths are independent of each other. There are many differences between the two, but the biggest is that the criminal case is brought by the government. In contrast, a civil case is filed by the victim’s loved ones and can result in financial compensation.

While a criminal prosecution and a civil wrongful death lawsuit are separate, one can influence the other. If you have lost a loved one in an accident, a wrongful death lawyer at Salamati Law could help. We can navigate your wrongful death lawsuit while factoring in the status of any related criminal case. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Key Differences Between Criminal Prosecution and a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Some of the key differences between a criminal case and a civil case include:

  • Parties – As noted above, in a criminal case, the filing party is the prosecutor from the local or federal government. However, in a civil lawsuit, the deceased victim’s family is referred to as the “plaintiffs.”
  • Claims – The government must prove that the defendant violated specific laws. In a civil case, the plaintiff does not need to show that a specific law was violated, only that the defendant was negligent, reckless, or acted intentionally and that those actions were a logically related cause of the death.
  • Time to file – The statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit is two years. The statute of limitations for crimes resulting in death is longer, and in some cases they are non-existent. For instance, murder and felony murder have no statute of limitations, while a manslaughter charge must be brought within 6 years. 
  • Burden of proof – In a criminal case, a prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is a much higher burden than “a preponderance of the evidence.” The latter is the burden of proof in a civil case. To meet this burden, the plaintiff only needs to show that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable. It also means that if a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal trial, they may still be liable in a civil lawsuit because the burden of proof is lower.
  • Punishment – If convicted, a criminal defendant can be ordered to pay fines and serve jail time. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant can be ordered to pay a monetary judgment to the plaintiff.

Schedule a free consultation with a wrongful death lawyer

The loss of a loved one is overwhelming. Holding a negligent party accountable may not provide closure, but monetary compensation allows you to heal and rebuild your life. The team at Salamati Law is here to help. We listen to your story, inform you of your options, and help you make an informed decision. We are experienced in California wrongful death settlements, fighting for the damages award that you deserve. Call today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.


California Legislative Information, California Penal Code 799 PC,

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