The Difference Between Wrongful Death and Homicide

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If someone dies because of the wrongful act, behavior, or carelessness of another person, there are two justice systems that can be used to hold the wrongdoer accountable: the civil justice system and the criminal justice system. Understanding the difference between a wrongful death claim and a homicide case is important if your family is grieving the preventable loss of a loved one. 

Civil vs. Criminal Justice System

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Wrongful death and homicide both refer to a loss of life at the hands of another person or entity. The difference lies in the justice system to which each term belongs. Wrongful death is a civil law term. It is a civil claim that is filed by surviving family members of the deceased person’s estate. The purpose of a wrongful death claim is to reimburse the claimant(s) for losses suffered because of the decedent’s death or to make the claimant whole again. A homicide case is part of the criminal justice system. The goal of this system is to punish someone for breaking the law rather than to compensate victims. 

Different Burdens of Proof

A key difference between a wrongful death claim and a homicide case is the burden of proof.  To win a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff or wrongful death lawyer must prove – through a preponderance of evidence – that the decedent would not have perished were it not for the actions of the defendant. A preponderance of the evidence means clear and convincing evidence that establishes the defendant is at fault with at least a 50-percent certainty.

There is a stricter burden of proof in the criminal justice system: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also a requirement to prove intent – the defendant intended to harm or kill the decedent. A wrongful death claim, on the other hand, does not require proof of intent. Most wrongful death cases are based on the legal theory of negligence. Negligence is the failure to use a reasonable or appropriate level of care, resulting in the victim’s fatal injury.

The lighter burden of proof in a civil case makes it possible for the same defendant to be found guilty of wrongful death but not guilty of homicide. The defendant’s actions or omissions may fulfill the definition of negligence without reaching the level of intent to harm. An infamous example of this is the case of OJ Simpson. It is also possible for a defendant to be found guilty in both justice systems, and to be held civilly and criminally liable for a death in Nebraska.

What Is Your Role as a Family Member?

If you recently lost someone close to you because of another person’s negligence, recklessness, or criminal actions, you may have a role in both the civil and criminal justice systems. Your role is more involved in the civil justice process, however. First, your family must determine the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate. This is the person with the legal right to file a wrongful death claim in Nebraska. Your loved one’s will might have named an executor, or else the courts will name one for you.

A homicide case, on the other hand, is initiated by a prosecutor. While your family may be called upon to provide evidence or testify during a criminal case against the defendant, you will have less involved roles. The prosecutor will attempt to prove that the defendant is guilty of homicide, or the crime being charged. Note that your family has only two years from the date of the death to file a Nebraska wrongful death claim, but a criminal case for homicide or murder has no time limit. To learn more about both types of cases after the death of a loved one, contact a wrongful death attorney in Omaha.