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Washington State Wrongful Death Law: Civil vs. Criminal Responsibility

There is a distinction regarding civil and criminal liability for a wrongful death. A civil claim for wrongful death will only involve the recovery of money or compensation against the responsible wrongdoer. Most of the time, a civil wrongful death claim is pursued and defended by private parties (also called litigants). Usually, the party who is accused of causing the wrongful death is defended by a private insurance company. In a civil claim, a primary issue is determining what amount of money or damages must be paid by the wrongdoer (or the wrongdoer’s insurance company) to fairly compensate the estate and surviving relatives. In a civil case, the wrongdoer will only be required to pay financial compensation (i.e., damages) to certain designated surviving family members. 

A person who causes a wrongful death may be criminally responsible as well. For this to occur, the wrongdoer’s conduct must be worse than ordinary negligence. Usually, the wrongdoer must act intentionally or recklessly to be guilty of a crime. If criminal liability exists, the wrongdoer is punished with jail time and/or fines. 

It is important to keep in mind that negligence is defined simply as “the failure to exercise ordinary care.”  A crime only occurs if the wrongful death was caused by conduct rising beyond simple carelessness. For instance, a drunk driver who kills another person will also be subject to criminal prosecution because this act has been defined in Washington as constituting reckless conduct (i.e., the willful and wanton disregard for a person’s safety).
 It is also important to note that a party who causes the wrongful death of another person may be subject to both civil liability and criminal responsibility. The two classifications are not mutually exclusive. However, a wrongful death caused by the intentional conduct of the perpetrator (e.g., assault or murder) is usually not the type of conduct that will be covered by an insurance policy. Most, if not all, insurance policies will only pay damages caused by conduct that is considered negligent and sometimes reckless, but never intentional. So although a wrongful death claim may be brought against a person who intentionally kills another, the claim may not be worth pursuing because there is no insurance policy to pay a settlement or verdict. An exception to this might be if the intentional wrongdoer is very wealthy.

The O.J. Simpson case is an example in which the alleged wrongdoer was subject to both criminal prosecution and civil liability for the death of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. Although Mr. Simpson escaped criminal responsibility (he was found not guilty), he was subject to civil liability after another jury assessed damages against him of more than $30 million. Presumably, a civil wrongful death case was brought against O.J. Simpson because he had substantial financial resources to pay a large verdict.