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Can You go to Jail for a Fatal Car Accident?

Each year, Nevada sees nearly 300 fatal car accidents. These accidents are thankfully rare, but they have many causes, such as drunk driving or reckless behavior. If you were involved in a fatal accident, you might be worried whether you will go to jail.

According to Nevada law, a driver who kills someone could be charged with either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. Of course, some motorists are not charged with anything, even if a motorist dies, though they could face a wrongful death lawsuit.

Below, our Las Vegas car accident lawyer looks closely at the laws that come into play when a person dies in a wreck. It’s up to the prosecutor to decide whether to seek criminal charges.

Vehicular Manslaughter

Nevada Revised Statutes 484B.657 makes vehicular manslaughter a misdemeanor offense. A person can be charged if they cause the death of another person by simple negligence. Examples of simple negligence include:

  • Failing to yield because you are daydreaming
  • Eating while driving
  • Going slightly over the speed limit
  • Drifting over the median because you are distracted
  • Forgetting to use a turn signal
  • Neglecting to check over your shoulder before changing lanes
  • Looking in the glove compartment for something and taking your eyes off the road

Many drivers make simple mistakes out of laziness, not because of any ill will or desire to take risks. This statute covers this type of behavior. However, not all accidents are caused by a driver’s negligence. For example, the roads might have been dangerous, causing you to lose control. Or your vehicle might have had a defect which rendered it inoperable. In other cases, the victim who died could have been responsible for the accident. For example, the victim might have run a red light when you struck them. The fact that you hit the other driver does not, by itself, mean you are to blame.

If convicted of vehicular manslaughter, a person can face up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If the accident happened in a work zone, then the penalties can be doubled. The death will also go onto a person’s driving history, increasing their insurance premiums and possibly leading to a license suspension (depending on their driving history before the wreck).

Reckless Driving

Some accidents stem not from carelessness but from risky driving. NRS 484B.653 criminalizes reckless driving, which includes any accident that leads to someone’s death. The technical language used in the statue is driving with a “willful or wanton disregard” for the safety of other people, which can include:

  • Running a red light
  • Going substantially over the speed limit
  • Weaving in and out of traffic
  • Driving on the sidewalk
  • Knowing the brakes are faulty but not fixing them
  • Aggressively tailgating

The difference between negligence and recklessness is the degree of blame. Someone who drifts over the center line because they are not paying attention is less blameworthy than someone who deliberately crosses the median to illegally pass another car. Because a person is more blameworthy, they suffer more serious penalties.

You can be charged with a Category B felony if your reckless driving proximately causes another person’s death. If convicted, a defendant faces 1-6 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines. Your penalties can also be doubled if you caused the death in a work zone.

DUI Causing Death

If you were impaired at the time of the accident, you face serious charges. NRS 484C.430 covers drivers who are impaired by controlled substances or alcohol and who proximately cause the death of another person.

Penalties are very steep, which is not surprising. Driving after drinking or doing drugs is a moral outrage. A defendant faces 2 to 20 years in state prison along with fines. Defendants will also lose their license for three years and have an ignition interlock device installed when and if they get their license back.

Will You Go to Jail after a Conviction?

As seen above, someone convicted of either vehicular manslaughter or reckless driving could be sentenced to time in jail or prison. But this does not mean that you will be imprisoned? The answer is simple: it depends.

If you are convicted of a misdemeanor but have a clean driving history, then you probably won’t be sent to jail, provided you cooperated with the investigation and didn’t flee the scene of the crime. We can’t emphasize enough that you need to come across as a credible, productive member of society to avoid jail.

By contrast, jail is more likely if you are charged with reckless driving. Good criminal defense attorneys will do everything in their power to get a reckless driving charge reduced to vehicular homicide, which is a misdemeanor. Doing so can help a defendant avoid jail.

If you were drunk at the time of the accident, then jail is highly likely. The problem with impaired drivers is that they might have a chemical addiction which will not be treated if they can simply return to their normal lives. A judge can order participation in a substance abuse program, but time in jail might also be helpful.

Paying Compensation for a Fatal Accident

Even if a defendant does not go to jail, they face the prospect of paying compensation to the victim’s surviving family members in a wrongful death claim. This is a civil suit, not a criminal one. The defendant will only be forced to pay money damages to the family if found liable for the death.

In most cases, your insurance should cover a fatal accident that you caused. Of course, the policy limits you have on your insurance might be quite low. If you kill a healthy 40 year old who makes $60,000 a year, then you have caused massive financial losses to the family. A jury might award family members over a million dollars in damages to make up for the financial loss.

The goal of a civil suit is to provide financial compensation. Most losses are economic—the loss of the deceased’s income and benefits. But they can also be non-economic in nature.

If you lose a lawsuit, the family will get a court judgment against you, and they can try to claim assets that you own. They might put a lien on your home and even force a sale in certain circumstances. They can also levy your bank accounts and other assets to pay off the judgment they secured. Of course, if you have no assets, you are “judgment proof”—at least for the time being. If you come into money or an inheritance, however, then the family could try to seize it to satisfy their judgment against you.

When Your Child Kills Someone in Your Car

If your child is involved in a fatal accident, you will not be sent to jail unless you facilitated it. For example, if you provided alcohol to a minor child and then handed him your car keys, you could face criminal charges. But in most cases, parents are not charged if a child is involved in a fatal accident.

Nevertheless, the insurance you have on the car will probably apply. So you can be sued as the owner of the car for the accident. You might also have to satisfy a court judgment above and beyond what your insurance will cover.

We Can Help

Naqvi is a leading Las Vegas firm that handles car accident cases for clients. If you have been injured in a wreck, or if a loved one was killed, we can help. Please call us today to schedule a free consultation.