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Recent acquittal of driver shouldn't discourage victim's family

About two years ago, a motorist killed a noted physician who practiced at the medical school in Albuquerque as an internist. At the time of the fatal car crash, she was also an associate professor at the medical school.

What happened was that, while the doctor had brought her vehicle to a stop at a traffic light, the other driver, now 30, slammed into the doctor's car. According to police, the woman was traveling at double the speed limit, 70 in a 35 mile per hour zone, at the time she hit the doctor's vehicle. She also left the scene of the accident and, when discovered, was reportedly acting erratically.

During the recent criminal trial, the woman's attorney explained the woman was dealing with some significant mental health issues that may have played a role in the accident. The attorney was able to convince the jury not to convict the woman of vehicular manslaughter, although the jury did convict the woman of some other, less serious charges including an allegation of careless driving.

Although this verdict is in all likelihood very disappointing to the doctor's family, they should not lose hope that there will be no justice for their loved one. This story serves as an important reminder of the difference between a criminal case, in which a driver may go to jail, and a civil wrongful death case, in which a driver will, at worst, be ordered to pay compensation to the victim's family.

These two scenarios carry with them different burdens of proof, which means in practice that a victim's family does not have to prove a wrongful death case to the same extent that a prosecutor would a criminal charge. As such, it is possible for a family to get compensation through a lawsuit even if criminal charges are not filed against the driver or if the driver does not get convicted.

Source: Albuquerque Journal, "Jury acquits driver of vehicular homicide in 2016 crash," Katy Barnitz, Feb. 26, 2018

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