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South Carolina Wrongful Death Lawyer Distinguishes Between Civil Suits and Being Criminal Felony Charges

The tragic death of a loved one due to someone’s wrongful actions can be devastating. Families are left grappling with grief and unanswered questions. In pursuing justice and closure, they may wonder whether a wrongful death action constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony. Consulting with a wrongful death attorney at Pracht Injury Attorneys is instrumental in understanding the civil and criminal proceedings that may follow the passing of a beloved family member. 

Wrongful Death Civil Action vs. Criminal Prosecution for a Felony

In and of itself, wrongful death isn’t a felony or a misdemeanor under South Carolina law. Rather, it’s a type of civil action filed by bereaved families. Any criminal prosecution for homicide or manslaughter is separate from a civil wrongful death lawsuit. Evidence may overlap between the two cases, but their proceedings and eventual verdicts are separate. 

Take a fatal drunk driving accident, for example. Someone may be convicted of a felony DUI if they cause “great bodily injury or death while driving under the influence.” When death occurs, punishment may include up to 25 years in prison and a mandatory fine of up to $25,100. This is a criminal conviction resulting in a felony. 

By contrast, South Carolina Code of Laws Section 15-51-10 defines “civil action for wrongful act causing death.” In a wrongful death action, the deceased would have had the legal right to file a personal injury lawsuit had they survived. So another person files the wrongful death claim on the decedent’s behalf. The death can be based on negligence-based incidents or intentional acts, including crimes like a felony DUI. 

Noteworthy Differences in Delivering Justice

The circumstances surrounding the death may be a crime, and the wrongdoer may be convicted of a felony. Even so, the civil proceedings of a wrongful death case are separate. There are several notable differences between the criminal and civil proceedings that can follow someone’s untimely death. 

Who Initiates the Proceedings

One of the major differences between wrongful death criminal and civil cases is who brings the case forward. 

For criminal prosecution, such as a homicide case, it’s up to the State to bring the charges forward to the judicial system. More specifically, the South Carolina Constitution names the Attorney General as the Chief Prosecuting Officer. The 16 Circuit Solicitors are also responsible for criminal prosecution. 

For a wrongful death lawsuit, which is a civil case, it’s up to the executor or administrator of the deceased’s estate to file. The deceased would have named their personal representative in their will. This is often a spouse or adult child. In the absence of a will, the courts may appoint someone as administrator. 

Level of Proof Needed 

The threshold or burden of proof is also different in civil and criminal wrongful death cases. In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Proving fault in a civil case only requires “the preponderance of the evidence.” The evidence should show that it’s more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for damages. 

Statute of Limitations 

A statute of limitations refers to the maximum time limit for filing a legal case based on an alleged wrongdoing. The statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death claim in South Carolina is three years. This time limit begins at the moment the victim dies or at first discovery of the negligent or intentional act that caused their death. By contrast, there’s no statute of limitations for criminal charges in South Carolina. Prosecutors can file felony DUI charges years after the crime was allegedly committed. 

For example, this means that while a person may face criminal charges five years after causing a drunk driving accident that resulted in your loved one’s death, you’ll likely not be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit for the same incident if five years have passed: the statute of limitations for civil action has expired. 

Purpose of Wrongful Death Lawsuits vs. Criminal Homicide Charges

America’s criminal justice system is meant to protect the public’s safety and punish those who break the law. If convicted of criminal homicide or other felonies, offenders may face imprisonment, fines, probation, and other sanctions. However, for families of victims to recover any financial compensation, they must file a wrongful death claim. 

Why Civil Wrongful Death Cases Are Important 

While no amount of money can ever fairly compensate bereaved families for the unjust death of a loved one, they may nonetheless face financial burdens as a result of this passing. A civil wrongful death case can help to deliver some reprieve, providing families with some sense of closure and justice. 

Beneficiaries of wrongful death settlements may include the spouse, children, parents, and other heirs. Recoverable damages may include loss of future earnings, medical expenses, funeral costs, and loss of consortium. Given their complexity, it’s crucial to hire an experienced wrongful death lawyer to explain your legal options and develop the strongest case possible. Count on the professionals at Pracht Injury Attorneys to guide you through this troubling time with compassion and provide you with the resources necessary for justice.