Criminal liability can't be based on any careless act merely because it results in another person's death. Nevertheless, in some sates, a driver's negligence or carelessness can be enough to convict him or her for the killing of another person with his or her vehicle. The degree, or level, of negligence can be either criminal negligence, or even ordinary negligence.

Criminally Negligent Homicide

In some states, driving a motor vehicle in a criminally negligent manner that causes the death of another person, under circumstances that don't amount to murder or manslaughter, constitutes the less severe, or "lesser offense" of criminally negligent homicide, or some similarly-named crime. Variations in the name of this crime can vary, depending on the state.

Criminal negligence is generally defined as:

  • Gross or extreme negligence
  • A very high degree of negligence marked by the absence of even slight care, but not conscious and intentional action known by the actor to create an unreasonable risk of harm to others
  • Conduct that is the equivalent of a wanton and willful wrong, or
  • The failure to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that is of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it amounts to a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the situation

Criminal negligence is something less than recklessness, which is the basis for a manslaughter prosecution, since recklessness usually does involve an awareness and a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk. A criminally negligent offender doesn't recognize the risk.

There is no one fact that is conclusive or needs to be established in order to prove criminal negligence. Rather, the type of motor vehicle operation that generally will support a conviction is characterized by a combination of factors, such as driving at an excessive rate of speed, disregarding the rules of the road or highway warning signs, and driving while intoxicated.

Negligent Homicide

As noted above, criminal liability generally cannot be based upon a careless act just because the carelessness results in another's death. Nevertheless, in some states, the law provides that the standard for blame is simply "negligence," and that the driving of a car that causes another's death can be penalized. Under such laws, courts generally hold that ordinary negligence is the appropriate standard of culpability, or "blame."

"Ordinary negligence," in the context of negligent homicide, has four elements:

  • The driver owed the victim -or the public in general- a duty, that is, some obligation
  • The driver breached, or violated, that duty
  • The victim was killed, and
  • The driver's negligence was the proximate cause of the death, that is, the negligence was the closest or nearest thing that could have caused the death

For example: a driver can be liable for negligent homicide if he or she runs a red light (a breach of the duty to obey traffic lights) and immediately crashes into another vehicle, which kills the other motorist ("but for" the driver's negligence, the other motorist would not have been killed, and so the driver's negligence was the proximate cause of the fatality).

Unlike civil actions based on ordinary negligence, such as "slip-and-fall" cases, the victim's contributory negligence, or wrongful conduct, does not provide a complete or partial defense to a negligent homicide prosecution. However, in such cases, the defendant driver should produce any proof or evidence of the victim's own negligence. If it is shown that the sole or only proximate cause of death was the victim's negligence, rather than the defendant's, the defendant can't be convicted.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If a driver accidently kills a passenger while driving, does bad weather excuse him from being criminally punished?
  • How does drinking while driving affect whether someone is charged with a homicide?
  • What happens if a car accident leads to a death but both drivers are negligent?

Tagged as: Criminal Law, Traffic Violations, criminal liability, driving death, criminal lawyer