In most accidents, criminal charges aren’t brought against the person who caused a crash. That driver might be issued one or more traffic tickets for any number of offenses, but traffic offenses usually don’t rise to the level of conduct that a person can be jailed for. There are exceptions to that general rule. The crime of driving under the influence of alcohol is one of them.
Pleading Guilty to An Offense
If a person who causes an accident involving injuries or death pleads guilty to a traffic offense like disobeying a red light or failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident, that plea of guilty can be used against that driver in a personal injury lawsuit. The guilty plea constitutes a judicial admission. It isn’t necessarily determinative in the civil lawsuit, but it’s certainly a strong factor that weighs on the liability decision.
A plea of not guilty and a finding of guilty after a trial cannot be used against the driver. A plea of no contest can’t be used against him or her either.
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Can I Sue When the Other Driver Wasn’t Charged with a Criminal Offense?
The simple answer to the above question is yes you can, and under the right circumstances, you can probably prevail. For example, here’s an unusual and tragic case out of California that just occurred early on New Year’s Day of 2019. A 30-year-old California man had been taken into custody on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and gross vehicular manslaughter involving a four car crash on the westbound 22 freeway in Santa Ana.
Police reported that the man allegedly drove his BMW at an “extremely high rate of speed” and rear-ended a Lexus in front of him. The BMW drove on and hit a Ford pickup that rolled over, slid across the westbound traffic lanes and hit a guardrail where it came to rest. It was occupied by a nine-year-old girl and her mother. That’s where the BMW came to a stop too.
A Mazda sedan then hit the pick up and also crashed into the guardrail. The girl from the Ford pickup died at the scene, and her mother died shortly thereafter at a local hospital. While sitting in the back seat of a California Highway Patrol squad car, the BMW driver reportedly kicked out a window and jumped out. He was quickly apprehended.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office declined to file any charges against the BMW driver. The decision was based on a purported lack of sufficient evidence. It’s unknown whether charges for criminal damage to the police car, attempted escape or escape were even filed.
Regardless of the fact that there is strong evidence that the BMW driver caused the crash, the public has yet to be informed as to whether the man received even a single traffic ticket for failing to reduce his speed to avoid an accident or reckless driving. He was last seen walking out of the front door of the Orange County jail with his shirt wrapped around his head.
After a mother and her nine-year-old daughter were killed at the hands of a driver who was driving at “an extremely high rate of speed,” the public was only given the courtesy of being advised that the crash will be investigated further. We continue to await an update. This crash is on our radar screen. We hope it’s on the District Attorney’s too.
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Why Can I Sue if There Were No Criminal Charges?
There’s a good reason why you can sue and win a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit when the other driver wasn’t charged criminally. That’s known as the burden of proof. In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As the District Attorney’s Office advised, it didn’t feel that it could meet that burden in a DUI case against the BMW driver, but in a civil wrongful death or personal injury lawsuit, that burden of proof is lower.
The person who brings the action need only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. That’s a simple matter of their version of events and their evidence being more likely true than not true. It’s a far lower burden of proof than in a criminal case. Given the version of events from at least one independent witness that the BMW driver was traveling at an extremely high rate of speed, rear-ended the vehicle in front of him and kept driving until he hit the Ford pickup truck, there is a high likelihood of a personal injury or wrongful death claimant preponderating in a civil case against him, the driver of the Mazda or both.
The fact that the man has yet to be charged in a criminal case is irrelevant. We would hope that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office won’t deem the lives of a mother and her nine-year-old daughter irrelevant. Even if the BMW driver is charged criminally, that case will be in a different courtroom with a lower burden of proof and a different judge and jury.
Contact a Los Angeles Car Accident Lawyer
Should injured victims and their families have to wait to see if criminal charges are brought before they can file a personal injury case, the number of personal injury claims would drop by at least 90 percent. That’s one of the reasons why different burdens of proof for criminal cases and civil cases are in existence. If you were injured or lost a family member in a motor vehicle crash as a result of the criminal or negligent actions of somebody else, don’t hesitate to contact us to arrange for a free consultation and case evaluation.
We promise to listen to you carefully, and we’ll answer your questions too. After that, we’ll advise you of your complete range of legal options. Time is critical in these types of cases. Contact us at your earliest opportunity.
Allen Vaysberg practices personal injury law and works tirelessly to defeat the tactics of insurance companies and large corporations who try to deny justice and fair compensation to injured people.