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.

Traffic accidents between vehicles and pedestrians are common enough that one pedestrian death occurs about every 1.6 hours on our nation’s roads and highways, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

After a car-pedestrian accident in which the vehicle driver is at fault, a number of civil and criminal consequences may loom for the driver, depending on the specifics of the crash. Let's look at the different possibilities.

Criminal Penalties

Hit and Run. When a driver accidentally strikes a pedestrian, but the driver also stops at the scene to follow proper post-accident protocol, the harshest consequences might be a personal injury lawsuit and a higher car insurance premium. But a driver who strikes a pedestrian and then flees the scene will likely face criminal charges, possibly even a felony arrest for hit and run, and a potential prison sentence.

DUI/DWI. After a car-pedestrian accident in which the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the driver can likely look forward to a DUI arrest and conviction. And since striking and injuring a pedestrian while drunk is just the sort of "aggravating circumstance" likely to enhance the severity of any sentence that’s handed down, the driver will probably face more jail time, higher fines, and harsher driver’s license penalties (i.e. a longer license suspension) than those that might follow a non-injury DUI.

Vehicular Manslaughter (or Involuntary Manslaughter). Pedestrian deaths caused by car-versus-pedestrian accidents account for 11 percent of all traffic accident deaths, according to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If a pedestrian dies as a result of a traffic accident in which the driver is at fault, that driver may face criminal charges, but only under very specific circumstances.

If the driver was operating a vehicle in such an extremely reckless manner right before the accident -- driving at 100 miles per hour in a school zone, or driving while intoxicated, for example -- then any pedestrian death resulting from the crash may spur a criminal charge of vehicular manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. The key element here is the driver's "reckless disregard of the substantial risk" caused by his or her driving. In order for criminal charges to result, the driver's conduct must go pretty far beyond ordinary negligence.

Remember, if the pedestrian’s death was truly an accident, and no aggravating circumstances exist (no DUI, no extreme recklessness), then criminal charges are highly unlikely, but the driver may still face a wrongful death lawsuit (more on this below).

Civil Penalties

Personal Injury Lawsuit or Insurance Claim. A driver who hits and injuries a pedestrian may face a personal injury lawsuit filed by the injured pedestrian, seeking to recover "damages" -- which means compensation for losses caused by the accident. Or the pedestrian might file a third-party car insurance claim with the driver's insurance company. That’s assuming that the driver is at fault, which isn’t always the case. In some situations, a pedestrian might be at fault for a traffic accident.

A lawsuit or insurance claim will first seek to establish the driver’s fault for the accident (proving that he or she was negligent). This can be done by taking statements from witnesses and the parties involved in the accident, and examining any police report prepared after the crash. That report may contain the police officer’s findings on any traffic violation committed by the driver -- that the driver failed to yield to the pedestrian at a clearly-marked crosswalk, for example. Those kinds of observations from a law enforcement officer carry a great deal of weight when the time comes to sort out who was at fault for the accident.

Next, 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.

Most injury-related car accident claims are resolved through the driver's car insurance carrier via an out-of-court settlement, but in some civil cases insurance might not always apply, as with a personal injury lawsuit after a DUI car accident.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit. As mentioned above, pedestrian deaths account for over 10 percent of all traffic accident-related deaths. Every state in the U.S. has some version of a wrongful death law, which allows the surviving family of a deceased person to bring a civil lawsuit against those responsible for causing the death. So, an at-fault driver who causes the death of a pedestrian after a traffic accident may face a wrongful death lawsuit. This kind of claim will first seek to establish the driver’s negligence in causing the accident, and then ask for compensation for the survivors' losses -- including loss of the deceased's support, lost companionship, funeral expenses, and similar types of harm.

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