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My wife died in a drunk driver car accident. Should I file a criminal or civil lawsuit? What’s the difference?

In a fatal car accident caused by a drunk driver, the at-fault driver would be charged with a crime, like a DUI or vehicular manslaughter. A legal case that can be brought against this driver is a criminal case. Such a case can only be brought by the government and the lawyer handling the case.

When prosecuting a criminal offense, there is a higher standard of proof required than in a civil case –say for instance a wrongful death case, as that would likely be the kind of case you may consider filing. A skilled wrongful death attorney can advise you on the process for a criminal lawsuit.

On the other hand, in a civil wrongful death case, anyone can file a lawsuit whose civil or private rights have been violated by another party. An example is a drunk driver causing a crash that kills someone where the drunk driver violated the right to safety for others on the road.

When a private party, such as a husband or wife, files a civil wrongful death lawsuit, they would be seeking compensation for the loss suffered and not asking for criminal sanctions, such as a jail term.

In some civil cases the judge may award a monetary penalty referred to as punitive damages against the at-fault individual. This is typically awarded because the defendant’s behavior was extremely reckless, egregious or malicious. Texas is one of few states that permits the awarding of punitive damage in a wrongful death lawsuit.

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