Pedestrian-Car Accidents: Civil vs. Criminal Consequences

Especially when a violation of the law is involved, after a car-pedestrian accident the driver might face criminal charges in addition to civil liability for the pedestrian's injuries.

Updated by , J.D.
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  • Traffic accidents involving cars and pedestrians are all too common. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a pedestrian was injured every seven minutes and killed every 85 minutes in traffic crashes in 2019.

    Drivers who strike pedestrians can face criminal and civil consequences. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, criminal penalties might include incarceration (prison or jail), probation, restitution (victim compensation), a driver's license suspension, and fines.

    Injured pedestrians can file civil lawsuits against the driver who hit them (and maybe the municipality where they were injured) for money damages regardless of whether the driver is criminally charged. Typical damages include compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

    What to Do Immediately After a Pedestrian Accident

    If you're a driver involved in a pedestrian accident, the first thing you need to do is stop. You can't go back in time to prevent the accident from happening, but you can make things worse for yourself and the pedestrian you hit if you flee the scene (see below for more on hit-and-run consequences).

    Once you've stopped in a safe place, assess the situation. If anyone involved in the accident needs medical attention, call 911 right away. Calling 911 will usually bring law enforcement to the scene. An officer will prepare a police report documenting the accident. Police reports have a big impact on criminal and civil cases. Any statements you make to the pedestrian, witnesses, and the police can typically be used in criminal and civil court: Be careful what you say.

    The best way to protect your legal rights is to gather evidence to help your claim as soon as possible. If appropriate, take pictures of your car and the accident scene from all directions—close-ups and from a distance. If you're aware of any neutral witnesses to the accident, try to get their contact information.

    When you get home, write out exactly what happened, as best as you can remember. You can use your notes to refresh your memory if you end up facing criminal or civil consequences down the road. Finally, call your insurance company to report the accident as soon as possible. Your policy requires you to notify your insurance company promptly of any incident that could trigger coverage and you might lose your coverage if you don't.

    Criminal Penalties

    Criminal courts are designed to determine whether a person has violated a criminal law (a law against harming or endangering others) and, if so, punish the offender. In criminal court, the government (represented by the prosecutor) must prove the charges against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Most car accidents, don't result in criminal charges. But drivers who act recklessly and disregard the safety of others can be charged with a crime. Let's take a look at a few potential charges that might arise from pedestrian-car accidents.

    Traffic Infractions

    Drivers who commit traffic violations can be cited by a police officer at the accident scene. Examples of traffic violations include:

    • speeding
    • running a stop sign or red light
    • texting while driving
    • failing to yield, and
    • making unsafe lane changes.

    In most states, traffic violations are infractions that can't result in jail time. Drivers who are convicted of traffic infractions face fines, traffic school, and demerit points on their driving record. Traffic infractions can also raise your insurance rates and might be admissible evidence in a personal injury lawsuit in some states. If you are cited with a traffic infraction in a pedestrian accident, talk to a lawyer before your first court date for the ticket.

    Hit and Run

    Every state requires drivers to stop at the scene of a car accident, provide identification, and give any needed assistance (like calling 911). Drivers who don't stop after pedestrian accidents, not only endanger the individual they hit, but also risk being criminally prosecuted for hit and run driving. Penalties for drivers who flee vary depending on the severity of the crash. In nearly all states, drivers who leave the scene of an accident that results in serious injury or death can be charged with a felony and sentenced to prison.

    Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

    A DUI is typically a misdemeanor crime. But a DUI offender who kills or seriously injures another person, including vulnerable pedestrians, can be charged with a felony DUI and sentenced to a lengthy jail or prison term. Other consequences might include having to pay thousands of dollars in fines and victim restitution.

    Vehicular Manslaughter (or Involuntary Manslaughter)

    According to the NHTSA, pedestrian deaths accounted for 17% of all traffic fatalities in 2019. In most states, drivers who negligently, recklessly, or unlawfully operate a vehicle and cause the death of another person can be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Other states don't have specific vehicular homicide laws, but rely on general homicide laws, like involuntary manslaughter, to prosecute drivers who cause the death of another person.

    Vehicular manslaughter and other driving-related homicides are typically defined as causing the death of another person while:

    • driving in a negligent, grossly negligent, or reckless manner
    • in violation of the DUI laws, or
    • committing certain traffic offenses.

    Penalties for driving-related homicide convictions vary from state to state. In some states, they are always felonies. In other states, the crime can be a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances.

    Civil Liability

    Civil courts handle disputes between individuals, including car accident lawsuits. In civil court, one party (the plaintiff) brings a lawsuit against another party (the defendant) and asks the court to award monetary damages or some other relief.

    An injured pedestrian can sue a driver in civil court whether or not the driver is criminally prosecuted for the accident.

    Insurance Claim

    Injured pedestrians might be covered under their own health and disability insurance policies, or worker's compensation coverage if the accident occurred on the job. They might also file an insurance claim with the driver's insurance company. Some of the key factors that will influence a car-pedestrian accident claim, include:

    Most insurance claims lead to an injury claim settlement, usually after back-and-forth negotiations. If settlement negotiations fail, an injured pedestrian might have to file a personal injury lawsuit.

    Personal Injury Lawsuit

    In a personal injury lawsuit, an injured pedestrian (plaintiff) will try to prove that the driver (defendant) was careless—or "negligent." The plaintiff will often rely on the statements of witnesses gathered in the police report (see above). That report might contain the police officer's findings on any traffic violation committed by the driver—for example, that the driver failed to yield to the pedestrian at a clearly-marked crosswalk. Law enforcement observations like those carry a great deal of weight when the time comes to sort out who was at fault for the accident.

    The injured pedestrian will ask the at-fault driver for compensation for all injuries and damages associated with the accident—including payment for medical treatment, time missed at work, pain and suffering caused by the crash, and any other relevant losses.

    Wrongful Death Lawsuit

    Pedestrian deaths accounted for nearly 20% of all traffic accident-related deaths in 2019. Every state in the U.S. has some version of wrongful death laws. Wrongful death lawsuits can be brought by a deceased person's survivors against those responsible for causing the death. This kind of claim will first seek to establish the driver's negligence in causing the accident, and then ask for compensation for the pedestrian's survivors—including loss of the deceased's support, lost companionship, funeral expenses, and similar types of harm.

    Talk to a Lawyer

    Accidents involving cars and pedestrians are serious and the potential consequences drivers face—criminal and civil—are equally serious. If you struck a pedestrian with your car, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort out who is at fault for the accident. Find out more about how a car accident lawyer can help you and get tips on how to find the right one for your case.

    If you've been charged with a crime (or even think you might be), talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

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