Many times, when someone is killed in an accident in New Jersey, police will charge the at-fault driver of the car with some sort of violation. The penalty for a car accident death charge will usually be related to the reason for the accident such as failure to stop at a red light or driving in the wrong direction on a street.
So, what if someone is killed in an accident but the at-fault driver wasn’t charged? Does this mean that the driver didn’t do anything wrong? If so, will that impact any personal injury case against the at-fault driver?
When Charges are Filed
Here’s how to answer that, we first need to look at what happens when a criminal/traffic charge is made in an accident case. The officer at the scene has the authority to level a charge, such as felony charges in a fatal crash, based on the evidence at the scene, and the driver will have to appear in court. In some more serious charges such as vehicular homicide and DUI, the driver will be immediately arrested.
However, just about every state in the U.S. has a rule that says a criminal conviction or vehicle code violation that came from the events of the accident can’t be used in court to prove that the person was at fault.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the evidence of what the person did to get the violation can’t come into court, but it means that just because a person has been charged and/or found guilty of a crime or traffic violation, they are at fault in a civil suit.
The reason is simple because the criminal/traffic court system is separate from the civil court system. The standard of review (level of proof needed to prove something) is different, the pretrial, trial, and post-trial procedures are different, and any judgment or verdict in a criminal court is not binding on any issue being decided in civil court.
When a Person is Not Charged
When we look at this separation between both systems, it then becomes clear that if the alleged at-fault driver wasn’t charged or convicted, it also makes no difference in a civil court. Let’s look at an example:
Pedestrian Killed, Another Injured by Driver at Jersey Shore
On May 24, 2019, a driver of an SUV struck two pedestrians at 8th Street and Bay Avenue in Ocean City, New Jersey. Police say that a male pedestrian died of his injuries and a woman was hospitalized. At the time this was reported, no charges had been filed in the incident.
So why were charges not filed? Was it because the officer felt that the driver didn’t do anything wrong or maybe that the pedestrians were walking in the middle of the road? Or maybe the driver was technically at fault, but just didn’t see them in the crosswalk and the police officer didn’t feel charges were necessary.
We have no answers to those questions regarding the above-mentioned incident, but even if we did, the law says that if the driver was charged—or not charged—it makes no difference in a civil case for a personal injury claim.
Types of Criminal/Traffic Charges Typically Filed in Accident Cases, Including Felony Charges in Fatal Crashes
There are many types of charges filed in an accident case, and depending on what is charged, it can make a significant difference to the driver being charged. Some of those are:
- Failure to Stop
- Failure to Yield to the Right of Way
- Going Too Fast for Conditions
- Unsafe Movement
Misdemeanor Traffic-Related Criminal Charges
- Negligent Driving
- Reckless Driving
- Leaving the Scene of an Accident
- DUI (with no serious injury)
Felony Charges in Fatal Crash and Traffic-Related Criminal Charges
- Death by Motor Vehicle
- DUI Vehicular Homicide
- Leaving the Scene of an Accident with Serious Injury or Death – This is a felony charge, and the driver could face up to 6 months in prison and a fine of $5,000.
Even if someone is charged and convicted of any of these charges, it doesn’t mean that they are automatically liable for any civil claims for personal injury. Likewise, if the police failed to charge someone in a case where any one of these would seem to be a proper charge, then it can’t be used in a civil court to say “Since I wasn’t charged by the police in the accident, it must mean I’m not responsible.”
Insurance and Liability in Un-Charged Accident Cases
One thing to consider is that insurance agents or their lawyers might imply or even outright say that since their client wasn’t charged, the police must not have felt that they did anything wrong and then try to deny or significantly reduce the claim for compensation.
This is just a tactic and has no bearing on the outcome of a civil case. They know that the systems are separate and any criminal charge, or lack thereof, will not affect the outcome of a civil case, but their job is to pay as little as they can in an accident.
What Steps Should I Take If I Sustain Injuries in an Accident, Regardless of Whether Someone Has Been Charged or Not?
The best thing to do is to talk to an attorney in New Jersey that knows the law and has experience in handling personal injury cases. If you have any inquiries or need further assistance regarding car accidents resulting in fatalities and the associated penalties, please feel free to contact us. We understand the seriousness of such cases and can provide guidance on the legal implications, including potential penalties for causing death in a car accident. Our dedicated team is here to address your concerns and offer support during this challenging time.
Consultations are usually free, so it costs you nothing but gas and time. This can be valuable so you can know your rights under the law. Then if you decide to hire an attorney, then you need one who has a track record of handling false and misleading statements by insurance companies.
Talk to a nearby attorney at The Pearce Law Firm, Personal Injury & Accident Lawyers P.C., and get a professional, unbiased evaluation of your case.
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