Understanding Wrongful Death vs Manslaughter

If you have a loved one whom you believe has died due to something a different party did, or failed to do, then you may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. However, there may also be an element of manslaughter within your case. The first thing you have to know is that both suits are possible at the same time. And, if you are in a situation where a manslaughter suit has led to the acquittal of the defendant, you may still be able to file a wrongful death suit as well. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the OJ Simpson trial.

Definition of Manslaughter

You must first understand the definition of manslaughter. Essentially, this is the intentional, inexcusable and unjustifiable killing of another human being without malice, premeditation and deliberation. Manslaughter can either be voluntary or involuntary.

Manslaughter is a crime within its own right. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, it is not a lesser form of murder. The difference between murder and manslaughter is that murder must include malice aforethought. With manslaughter, this may be absent. As such, manslaughter is a less serious crime. However, it is very distinct from excusable or justifiable killing, which carries a much lower punishment (sometimes it carries no punishment at all).

Understanding the difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter is also important and this is defined by common law. In a voluntary manslaughter case, there was intent to cause serious bodily harm or even death. Involuntary manslaughter does not carry this intent. Manslaughter does not look at deliberation or premeditation. If this is present, then it is a case of murder. In a number of states, the terms “voluntary” and “involuntary” no longer exist. Rather, they speak of different degrees of manslaughter, usually ranging from first to third degree.

Wrongful Death Definition

By contrast, a wrongful death case is a civil, not a criminal suit. It can be filed by the loved ones of the decedents, who feel they should be compensated for their loss, which was caused directly by negligence or deliberate action or inaction of a different party. Wrongful death laws are in place to compensate for the suffering of the survivors of negligence, rather than the deceased. Wrongful death comes under tort law. Additionally, it is not covered by common law, as the early American and English courts did not recognize wrongful death when the laws were set up. Indeed, in the past, when someone died, the right to bring a case up also died. This was a historical rule and its injustice has been recognized over the past 100 years or so, leading to new laws to ensure people cannot simply escape liability.

Who Files Wrongful Death and Manslaughter Suits?

Manslaughter cases are criminal cases. As such, they are filed by the state itself, on behalf of “the people.” The goal of a manslaughter case is to punish the person or entity who did wrong in this case. This is often achieved through jail and/or prison terms, fines to be paid to the state (not the victim) and/or community service.

By contrast, wrongful death cases are brought by the loved ones of the deceased, or the executor of the estate of the decedent. While this case is filed on behalf of the person who has died, the goal is not to punish the wrongdoer but rather to compensate the relatives who were left behind. The types and amounts of damages that can be claimed in these cases vary depending on the content of the case, as well as on the laws and statutes of the state in which the cause of death occurred. In most states, you will be able to claim for economic losses, which include medical expenses and loss of future earnings. In some states, you can also claim for personal emotional suffering and even loss of companionship.

Standards of Proof

So far, it is clear that there are a number of main differences between wrongful death and manslaughter. They are:

1. Manslaughter is a criminal case while wrongful death is a civil case.
2. Manslaughter is filed by the state while wrongful death is filed by surviving loved ones.
3. Manslaughter seeks to punish the wrongdoer while wrongful death seeks to compensate those who are left behind.

Another main difference exists, however, and that is with regards to the standards of proof. Manslaughter is a criminal offense. As such, the proof must be provided beyond reasonable doubt, which can be very difficult to achieve. By contrast, in a wrongful death case, the standard of proof is “preponderance” of evidence. This is a much lower standard and far easier to achieve.

In many cases, people who are acquitted of manslaughter but still receive a verdict in a wrongful death case find themselves in this situation because it was not possible to prove manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt. This is why the OJ Simpson case is so notable. While acquitted of the murder of his estranged wife and her companion, he was ordered to pay millions in wrongful death compensation to the surviving relatives of the two deceased. To this date, he has not done so and is currently imprisoned on unrelated charges.

Statute of Limitations

One final big difference between a wrongful death case and a manslaughter case is the statute of limitations. All states have different statutes of limitations, but they range from between one and six years for a wrongful death case. This means you must file a suit within that time period. Understanding the date from which the statute starts to roll is slightly more complicated, but it remains that you must file a suit before the deadline passes. Hence, seeking legal advice as soon as you believe wrongful death may have happened is vital.

In the case of criminal manslaughter, the statute of limitations also varies from one state to another. It ranges from around seven years to none at all. This means that, potentially, filling a manslaughter suit can be done at any point after the death of an individual.