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When Can Negligence Become Criminal?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Normally, when we think of negligence, we think of traffic accidents and personal injury cases. Legally speaking, negligence is when carelessness results in an injury to a person or property. Such cases are normally dealt with by civil lawsuits for monetary damages to compensate the injured party, although sometimes damages are awarded to punish the negligent party.

But what happens when a person's actions aren't merely careless, but reckless? And what happens when it's not a simple fender bender, but a fatal car crash? There is such a thing as criminal negligence, when recklessness can turn into a prison sentence. Here's a look.

Criminal Accidents

Some states have criminal statutes with heightened negligence standards like criminal or reckless negligence. Criminal negligence arises primarily in situations involving the death of an innocent party, and can also be referred to as criminally negligent homicide.

Perhaps the classic example is in motor vehicle accidents. If you simply fail to brake in time and hit the car in front of you, the police may issue you a ticket for reckless driving, but it will likely be a traffic citation involving a small fine and perhaps points on your driver's license.

On the other hand, let's say you're drunk and plow through an intersection, severely injuring or killing someone. While you didn't intend to cause the accident or hurt anyone, driving drunk goes beyond mere carelessness and becomes dangerously reckless. That means you could face criminal charges like vehicular or DUI manslaughter, for which you'd face much steeper fines and jail or prison time.

Involuntary Crimes

While some criminal negligence charges can focus on the preceding recklessness, other can focus on the severity of the result. These charges can also take the form of involuntary manslaughter if someone is killed as a result.

Involuntary manslaughter is generally defined by three elements:

  1. Someone was killed as a result of your actions;
  2. Your actions were either inherently dangerous to others or done with reckless disregard for human life; and
  3. You knew or should have known your conduct was a threat to the lives of others.

Criminal law generally punishes only intentional acts, while civil law takes care of the harmful mistakes and accidents. But sometimes behavior can become so dangerous, even if unintentional, that it becomes a crime. If you've been charged with criminal negligence, contact a local attorney as soon as possible.

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