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Massachusetts wrongful death claim even if no criminal charges?

A recent fatal accident in western Massachusetts underscores some of the potential differences between criminal proceedings and claims for personal injury or wrongful death in our state. A fatal accident on our roadways often results in both criminal and wrongful death claims. In the aftermath of a collision that results in one or more deaths, authorities typically conduct a formal accident investigation and ultimately determine what happened and whether they believe any laws were broken. When it appears that criminal conduct is involved, formal charges are usually brought. Apart from any criminal proceedings, the surviving family of the deceased retains the right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

Occasionally, as evidenced by a fatal accident in May that involved a car and a bicycle, law enforcement personnel decide that criminal charges are not warranted. That, however, does not mean the surviving family is barred from bringing a civil lawsuit. Even when a collision is deemed to have not risen to the level of criminal conduct, a civil lawsuit may be commenced based upon evidence of negligence. In short, one can be negligent without committing a crime. The burden of proving negligence in a civil proceeding is less stringent than that required for a criminal conviction.

While the reported details are few, the fatal accident occurred in downtown Northampton. It is only known that a car struck an 18-year-old bicyclist, who died from the injuries sustained. Nevertheless, the office of the district attorney concluded the tragedy was an unfortunate accident and that no criminal charges would be filed. In effect the prosecutor’s office concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver of the car was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The family of the deceased victim still retains the right to pursue a wrongful death claim, if it chooses to do so. To prevail in a Massachusetts civil courtroom, the family will need to prove that the driver negligently caused or contributed to the fatality. If that is established by competent proof, the court will consider claims for monetary damages notwithstanding the fact that the driver was previously absolved of any criminal responsibility.

Source: wggb.com, “No Charges Filed in Deadly Northampton Cyclist Crash,” Dec. 4, 2012