Will You Go to Jail After a Fatal Car Accident in Miami, Florida?
June 1, 2023 | Sagi Shaked | Car Accidents
Miami is a dangerous place to drive. Miami-Dade County roads see three or four hundred fatal accidents per year and tens of thousands of accidents. So what happens if you kill someone in an accident? Whether you go to jail after a fatal car accident depends on whether the accident was your fault and, if so, your degree of culpability.
Florida’s vehicular homicide statute deals with accidental death by vehicle. It imposes criminal liability for reckless driving that leads to a fatal car accident. Your driving is reckless if it exhibits an indifference to the lives and safety of others. It might mean, for example:
- Driving while intoxicated;
- Driving at night with your lights off;
- Street racing; or
- Driving the wrong way down a one-way street.
Many other sorts of driving behavior might constitute reckless driving. Ultimately, it’s a judgment call. One certainty is that recklessness in criminal law requires more serious misbehavior than ordinary negligence in personal injury law.
If a court convicts you of vehicular homicide, you could go to prison for 15 years. If you leave the scene of the accident, the maximum penalty is 30 years in prison. Remember, however, that the prosecution must prove you guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard is much more difficult to meet than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in civil proceedings, such as wrongful death claims.
Vehicular homicide applies when someone recklessly causes the death of another through misuse of a vehicle. Florida’s murder statute applies when someone intentionally causes the death of another human being, whether or not through the use of a vehicle.
Murder might be the appropriate criminal charge, for example, if a driver in a fit of “road rage” uses their car as a weapon to intentionally cause the death of another person. Of course, this wouldn’t be an “accident” from the point of view of the perpetrator.
A murder conviction in Florida means decades, or perhaps a lifetime, behind bars. Under certain circumstances, Florida can even impose the death penalty for intentional homicide. Florida ranks among the top five US jurisdictions in terms of number of executions per year.
You might be innocent of any of the foregoing offenses. Perhaps it was not your behavior, but someone else’s, that caused the accident. This could win you an acquittal even if you were intoxicated at the time of the accident. Nevertheless, the police could still arrest you for DUI, which is a criminal offense with potentially serious consequences.
Wrongful Death Liability
Florida’s wrongful death statute imposes civil liability on people who cause fatal accidents. You won’t go to jail by losing a wrongful death lawsuit because wrongful death is a civil offense, not a criminal offense. You might go bankrupt, however.
A wrongful death lawsuit is an independent proceeding. In other words, you can face a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal prosecution at the same time for the same accident. One of the major differences in a wrongful death lawsuit, however, is that you do not have to be driving recklessly to trigger liability for wrongful death. All you need is negligent driving, which could amount to mere “carelessness.”
Unless you are extremely well-insured (you are a commercial trucker, for example), your insurance policy will not even begin to cover wrongful death compensation. That means whatever you still owe after your insurance policy reaches its limits will come out of your personal assets. That could leave you without enough assets to defend yourself against your criminal charge properly.
Burden of Proof
The deceased victim’s estate executor is the party who files a Florida wrongful death lawsuit. They must prove your liability by “a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning at least a 51% chance that your version of events is true. This means that you could lose a wrongful death lawsuit even if a criminal court acquitted you of vehicular homicide, murder, or DUI.
You Might Need More Than One Lawyer
If you caused a fatal car accident, you might be facing both criminal and civil liability. Since your life is at stake under these circumstances, you will definitely need a good lawyer. The problem is that not all that many lawyers enjoy expertise in both murder cases and wrongful death cases. Your best bet may be to select two lawyers, one for each type of liability, and make sure they consult with each other.