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Civil lawsuits may be appropriate regardless of criminal charges

Motor vehicle crashes are often referred to as “car accidents.” But it’s not always accurate to use the term “accident,” particularly if the crash was caused by driver negligence. Most crashes are preventable, and calling a preventable crash an accident may be letting negligent and reckless drivers off the hook.

In the aftermath of an injurious or fatal crash, it is important to determine who may have been at fault and to what extent negligence played a role. A drunk driver who causes a crash, for instance, could face criminal charges as well as a civil lawsuit. But in crashes caused by other forms of negligence, it is not necessarily clear if criminal charges are appropriate.

One example involves drowsy or fatigued driving. Earlier this month, a jury in Pennsylvania acquitted a 21-year-old man of vehicular homicide for causing a crash that killed a 24-year-old woman. On a night in 2011, the two had just met at a party and were traveling in the defendant’s pickup truck. He then fell asleep behind the wheel, veered off the road and struck a tree. The defendant did not try to brake and neither he nor the young woman were wearing seat belts.

Alcohol wasn’t a factor in the crash and the young man was not speeding, according to a recent news article. But a prosecutor in the case noted that the defendant experienced warning signs of drowsiness but ignored them and kept driving. In doing so, he was being “reckless” and “grossly negligent.”

Ultimately, the jury did not feel that the defendant’s actions were criminal. This type of criminal case is one that might lead to many disagreements between jurors here in North Carolina or anywhere else for that matter.

But even if criminal charges are not appropriate, a civil lawsuit for personal injury or wrongful death might be. A drowsy driver may have no criminal intent. But if he falls asleep and kills someone in a crash, that victim has nonetheless died as a result of preventable negligence. As such, the victim’s family has a right to hold that driver accountable in a civil lawsuit and to seek compensation.

It is unclear if this case prompted any civil lawsuits. But regardless of any criminal prosecution or lack thereof, victims and their families still have an avenue for holding negligent drivers accountable.

Source: York Dispatch, "Drowsy Hanover-area driver acquitted of vehicular homicide," Liz Evans Scolforo, April 8, 2014

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