Differences Between Civil Wrongful Death Lawsuits and Criminal Prosecutions

The tragic death of Hailey Owens that has an entire community in mourning took another turn last week when her parents filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against her accused killer, Craig Michael Wood.  The lawsuit prompts new questions about the case, as well as about the motivation behind filing the lawsuit.  Among those questions is a general one: What is the difference between the lawsuit that was filed and the prosecution that the accused killer is already facing?  Matt Lupoli, a reporter with the CBS News affiliate in Southwest Missouri, KOLR10, did a story last week where attorney Adam Woody was interviewed regarding the differences. Mr. Lupoli did a great job highlighting the major differences, but we hope to expand further on the idea for clarity.

A wrongful death lawsuit may be filed when a person negligently or intentionally causes the death of another person.  It is important to note that this is vastly different from criminal prosecutions for first degree murder in which the state must prove that a person “knowingly causes the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter”.  A person acts “knowingly” when “he is aware that his conduct is practically certain to cause that result.”  In the criminal aspect of a case, there is no liability for first degree murder when one is simply “negligent”.  That tends to make civil lawsuits for wrongful death substantially easier to prove than their criminal counterpart.

Additionally, the burden of proof upon the plaintiff (the side that brings the lawsuit or the prosecution) is substantially different in criminal and civil actions.  On the one hand the burden of proof in a civil wrongful death case  is “preponderance of the evidence”.  The preponderance standard basically means more likely than not.  On the other hand, in criminal prosecutions, the burden on the prosecutor is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”. That burden is defined as being met when the evidence leaves one “firmly convinced” of the defendant’s guilt.  Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of proof that we have in our justice system and is meant to ensure a person is not wrongfully convicted in a criminal case.  If convicted in a criminal prosecution, a person stands the chance of losing his or her liberty for a substantial period of time.  If found guilty of first degree murder, for example, the only possible punishment is life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The high burden of proof exists in criminal case at least in part because losing one’s liberty is seen as more significant than losing one’s money, which is the only thing that can taken in a civil case.

As is clear in the case of Hailey Owens, both a civil case and a criminal prosecution may proceed at the same time.  One does not preclude the other.  However, it is highly unlikely that the defendant will ever tell his or her side of the story in the civil case.  He or she will likely assert their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  Otherwise, whatever they say in the civil case could potentially be used against them in the criminal prosecution.  If they do assert the Fifth, however, that silence can be considered as an admission of guilt to be used against them in the civil case.

Civil wrongful death cases tend to be much easier to prove than criminal prosecutions.  That has to do in large part with the lower burden of proof and with the plaintiff having to prove merely negligence.  To use a famous example that everyone is familiar with, the O.J. Simpson case illustrates the differences.  As we are all aware, O.J. was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, after a jury trial .  However, in the civil wrongful death lawsuit he was found responsible and ordered to pay the family of Nicole $25 million.  

In the case against Craig Michael Wood, it is alleged that he has a large trust.  It is unclear when the trust vests, or if he will ever actually get any of the money from the trust.  It is equally unclear whether the family of Hailey Owens will ever collect any money from her alleged killer even if they get a large judgment against him.  Aside from the civil case being easier to prove than the criminal case, one thing is clear: the twists and turns of the Hailey Owens case are just beginning and the case is sure to have at least one community on the edge of its seat over the next several months and years.