Ever since my sister died in a drunk driving accident, I’ve been fascinated with studying fatalities and the wrongful death legal process. I think it’s important for families to get the justice they deserve after a loved one dies. I’m grateful I could get that justice for my sister, but just because my family received settlement money doesn’t mean it was easy to forgive the driver who took her life.
I know the driver who killed my sister lives with the mistake he made every day. That guilt is probably punishment enough. But what about the wrongful death cases that aren’t clear accidents?
Sometimes, it’s difficult to determine whether a defendant should be charged criminally for manslaughter or civilly for wrongful death. Determining the level of negligence is important. If the negligence is wanton or reckless, the criminal court may have to get involved.
A Difficult Accident to Forgive
I read about a fatal accident that occurred in Indiana about five years ago. This case really stuck in my mind because it was hard to decipher whether wrongful death or murder (in some form) had occurred.
A pedestrian had been walking across the street in broad daylight, crosswalk symbol flashing, when a vehicle sped right through the red light and killed the pedestrian. The driver was reckless and negligent, yet they didn’t have a predetermined plan to kill the pedestrian. It was an “accident.”
In cases like this where gross negligence is clear, it can be hard for the family of the deceased to forgive, no matter how much money they may receive in civil court. The family likely wanted the defendant to serve jail time for what they did. They may have wanted the defendant to suffer the way they were suffering. I understand that feeling.
Involuntary Manslaughter Charges
What I learned from this case is that there is a middle ground in the law that covers the gray area between murder and wrongful death. When this driver in Indiana hit the pedestrian, the victim’s family hired an Indianapolis car accident attorney and filed for wrongful death. But the state also filed criminal charges for involuntary manslaughter using a motor vehicle.
Unlike murder, involuntary manslaughter is the unjustified, unexcused, and unintentional killing of one human being by another human being without malice aforethought. Involuntary manslaughter using a motor vehicle in Indiana is a Class D felony.
Criminal and Civil Justice
The drunk driver in my sister’s case was never punished on manslaughter charges. He may have had a DUI charge, but that’s it. I may have been angrier at the time if I had known the driver could have faced harsher penalties, but I’m okay with it now. I’ve made my peace. It’s still good to know other families can find justice for their loved one’s deaths, whether that justice comes from the criminal or civil court system.