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Driver criminality in car accidents irrelevant to damages claim

A basic principle of negligence law in New York City and elsewhere is that a passenger who is injured or killed in an accident will generally be entitled to monetary damages if the incident was caused by the negligence of one or more other persons. That general rule for car accidents likely will apply to a recent tragic and heartbreaking accident in which a young woman was killed while celebrating her 21st birthday. She was the passenger in a vehicle that crashed on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge when its driver lost control and rammed into a median, throwing the decedent from the car.

The impact was so violent that it literally split the 2013 Infiniti into two sections. The police charged the operator, who is a traffic enforcement agent with the New York Police Department, with driving while intoxicated, vehicular manslaughter and other felonies. If he is found guilty of the charges, the estate of the deceased woman will have an easier burden in proving negligence due to the applicability of the legal doctrine called "negligence per se."

That principle dictates that negligence is proved in an accident if the operator is convicted of an offense that was directly relevant to causing the victim's death. It is important to maintain a distinction, however, between the criminal prosecution of a criminal defendant and the civil tort claim for wrongful death money damages. These proceedings take place in two different courts and are separate from each other.

In New York City and all jurisdictions, the standard required to collect damages in a civil claim made by the decedent's family is substantially easier than the demanding reasonable doubt standard required to convict the operator of a crime. In most car accidents, the factor of criminal responsibility does not come into play because criminal activity is not involved. The civil claim is usually negotiated and determined solely on principles of an operator's negligent causation of the claimant's injuries.

Source:, "Woman killed, thrown from car in crash on Williamsburg Bridge", N.J. Burkett, March 16, 2017

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