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When Speed Kills and Maims: How Civil Justice Differs from Criminal Justice

Tragedy struck on Saturday evening when a driver sped through an intersection at Cermak Rd. and Kostner St. and hit two children who were leaving a nearby gas station. A 14-year-old boy, Kaidon Bell, was killed by the collision; his friend, a 12-year-old girl, is in critical condition at a local hospital.

This is one of those stories that breaks our hearts. One family has suffered an indescribable loss; the other is praying they will no do the same. Any fatal vehicle accident is devastating, but when the victims are children… Well, it just feels even more awful.

ABC News reports that the driver was charged with not reducing speed and not yielding to pedestrians, but not with taking the life of Kaidon Bell. The family is understandably distraught, but scenarios like this are common under the law. So we want to explain why the driver may never face criminal charges, and what options a family might have moving forward.

Why wasn’t the driver charged with reckless homicide?

When a driver accidentally kills someone in a collision, that driver can be charged with reckless homicide. In most cases, prosecutors only charge drivers who are drunk, or driving the wrong way on a one way street, or otherwise engaged in reckless driving. This is a very serious charge; it’s a felony, which means prison time and thousands of dollars in fines, plus a slew of other penalties that are most keenly felt after a person leaves prison.

But the case involving Kaidon Bell and his friend is a tough one, because if ABC News’ reporting is correct, the children ran out into the street moments before the driver hit them. And while the driver should not have been speeding, at this time there is no indication that the light was yellow or red when the driver went through it, which means the driver may have had the right of way.

 

This is why the investigation is still ongoing. Because of the way the laws work in Chicago, right of way isn’t always easy to determine. It can depend on whether or not the victims were in a crosswalk, or how much time a driver has to physically stop the car. The accident took place around 7:30 pm, which means it was dark out, too. While all four corners of that intersection have streetlights, we do not know if they were all working and on at the time.

In other words, as terrible as this is, it could truly have been just a tragic accident in the purest sense of the word. Or, the investigation could show that the driver’s behavior was especially egregious. If this is the case, the driver could be charged with reckless homicide at a later date. We simply do not know.

Can you file a lawsuit if a driver isn’t charged with a crime?

Yes, you can. There are two “types” of justice systems: criminal and civil. When a person is injured in a car crash, he or she can file a personal injury lawsuit in civil court to collect damages. If a person dies, his or her family can file a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court for the same reason.

No matter what type of civil lawsuit you file, you don’t have to worry about criminal charges as part of your claim. Does a criminal conviction help? It can – but not having one doesn’t mean it will hurt, either. After all, OJ Simpson didn’t go to prison for murder, but he was successfully sued for $25 million in a wrongful death claim.

So – how is that possible? There are two reasons, really:

  1. Civil justice and criminal justice are different, which means their cases are different. You can’t be tried for the same crime twice, but you CAN be held accountable in civil court when your actions cause harm to another.
  2. The burden of proof in a civil case is different from a criminal case. In a criminal case, a prosecutor must prove a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, you have to provide a “preponderance of evidence.”

In other words, if a person harms you or your family in an irreparable way, there is always a path to justice. We will not lie and say the path is always clear, or that it is always easy, but it DOES exist. So if you are hurt in a collision with a speeding driver, know that there are options for you to hold that negligent person accountable.

Do I need a Chicago car accident lawyer after a fatal collision?

Legally, you’re never required to hire a lawyer – but when a crash results in death, working with a lawyer may be in your best interest. Insurance companies don’t want to pay out on claims no matter how serious they are, and you are likely to be offered a very low settlement amount if you show up without an attorney on your side.

But when you do hire an attorney – especially one who is able and willing to take the negligent driver to court – those insurers start singing a different tune. Often, they come in with a more just offer from the start, because litigation is expensive and time consuming for them, and juries are unpredictable. Know, though, that if the insurance company continues to play hardball, your best bet may be a trial – and you definitely want a lawyer on your side if it comes to that.

Saturday’s tragedy weighs heavy on our minds, and we hope the families find some peace and some closure. If you have questions about how wrongful death lawsuits work, or are even in need of an attorney for a car accident claim, Gainsberg Law is here to help. Call us in Chicago at 312-600-9585 or fill out our contact form.