Vehicular homicide in Washington State is a criminal charge. If a person dies from injuries sustained in a crash in Washington State, under some circumstances, the negligent driver can face charges of vehicular homicide.
If you are suing someone for the wrongful death of a loved one, you cannot add a charge of vehicular homicide to your lawsuit. Because vehicular homicide is a criminal matter, only a prosecutor can take someone to trial for this charge. A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil case, not a criminal case.
A Driver Can Face Both Vehicular Homicide Charges and a Wrongful Death Case
Let us say that a person was driving while under the influence of methamphetamines (meth) when they struck and killed a pedestrian. The prosecutor can file criminal charges against the driver for vehicular homicide. The pedestrian’s family can file a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages for the loss of their loved one.
For example, in the O.J. Simpson case, there was a criminal murder trial and a civil wrongful death case. And just as in the Simpson case, a “not guilty” verdict on the criminal charges does not preclude the decedent’s survivors from filing and winning a civil wrongful death case. The two cases proceed independently of each other because the law imposes a different burden of proof in criminal cases than it does in civil cases.
What Constitutes Vehicular Homicide in Washington State
There are four elements the prosecutor will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to support a conviction of vehicular homicide in Washington State. These elements are:
- A vehicle caused the death of someone other than the driver.
- The death was a proximate result of an injury caused by the driver.
- The person died within three years of the injury and as a proximate result of the injury. (In other words, if something unrelated to the crash — like an allergic reaction to a bee sting — caused the person’s death within three years of the crash, it is not a case of vehicular homicide.)
- The injury happened when the driver operated the motor vehicle in a reckless manner, with disregard for the safety of others, or while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug.
Penalties for Vehicular Homicide
Vehicular homicide is a class A felony in Washington State. Class A felony convictions in Washington can carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment in a state correctional institution, or a fine of $50,000, or both incarceration and a fine. The court can add two extra years to the sentence for each prior offense.
Prosecutors are allowed to recommend restitution instead of a fine. The statute provides that the defendant would pay the restitution money to the victim which, in a death case, would be the survivors of the decedent.
Do Not Delay in Filing a Civil Wrongful Death Action
While it is understandable that you might want to wait and see what happens in the criminal court before you file a wrongful death action, doing so could make you lose all rights to compensation in the civil courts. Felony cases can drag on for a long time, and you will have no control over the speed at which the criminal vehicular homicide case makes its way through the court.
Even after the criminal trial, judgment, and sentencing, there can be lengthy appeals.
If you do not file the wrongful death action before the deadline, state law will bar you from ever getting to seek damages for the loss of your loved one. Washington's statute of limitations does not prevent you from pursuing a wrongful death case just because the prosecutor might file vehicular homicide charges against the driver.
How to Get Legal Help
If your loved one died as a result of a crash that might end up in a vehicular homicide trial, you should talk with a wrongful death attorney right away. We will protect your rights and help preserve your claim to compensation. We will explain the two different cases — the criminal vehicular homicide case and the civil wrongful death action — to you and evaluate whether you might be eligible for compensation for your loss.Please call the Max Meyers Law wrongful death team today at 425-399-7000, and we will set up your free consultation. There is no obligation, and we only charge legal fees if you get compensation.