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Guilty plea by officer indicates successful wrongful death claim

In North Carolina, when a negligent or reckless driver kills an innocent victim in a vehicular accident, the bringing of criminal charges or driving violations against the driver is an independent prosecution not directly related to the civil damages claim vested in the decedent's estate. The claim that is made on behalf of a decedent by his or her estate is called a wrongful death action. The estate may generally collect funeral and medical expenses, lost earnings for the remainder of the decedent's life expectancy, and pain and suffering if the decedent was conscious at any time after the impact.

The claim can be filed against one or more wrongdoers who caused the death, including generally against a public agency and its authorized agent. A wrongful death claim is separate and distinct from criminal charges against the driver who caused the accident. However, a guilty verdict or judgment of some kind of improper driving may possibly result in a finding of automatic negligence in the civil claim. Recently, a Winston-Salem police officer pleaded guilty to charges arising from an auto accident in which a man was killed due to the officer's negligent operation of his vehicle.  

The guilty plea was to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle. The officer was ordered to perform community service as the sentence. The accident occurred when the officer slammed into a vehicle that had gone properly through a green light. The precise circumstances of the officer's negligence are not clear from press reports.

Because the officer was presumably on the city's business at the time, the city is liable for the employee's negligence. It appears unlikely under these facts that the city would put up a serious fight about the need to pay damages and to settle the civil wrongful death claim. Notably, the victim suffered severe injuries, but did not die until 10 days after the accident, which indicates the likelihood of a significant pain and suffering amount to be included with the other elements of damages under North Carolina law.

Source: wsoctv.com, "Police officer pleads guilty to charges from fatal wreck", Nov. 18, 2015

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