New York City bike crash highlights civil/criminal distinction

Following the death of a 58-year-old woman who was struck by a cyclist while crossing the street in Central Park, New York authorities say they have not pressed charges against the 31-year-old bicyclist who was reportedly involved in the crash. In the days following the accident, investigators said they had not determined who had the right of way in the crash, which occurred at a crosswalk. Regardless of whether the cyclist ends up facing criminal charges in relation to the crash, he could still face potential liability in civil court. This tragic story provides a useful entry point into a discussion of the basic differences between the two types of proceedings.

Criminal charges and civil liability may follow a crash

When someone is hurt in a pedestrian crash, whether it involves bikes, cars or both, a number of legal issues may arise - both civil and legal. While most people have at least a basic familiarity with the criminal legal system, fewer people are aware of the civil legal system and how it functions.

In cases involving potentially criminal behavior such as impaired driving or vehicular manslaughter, the driver (or bicyclist) accused of causing the crash can face charges in the criminal court system. When a person is charged with a crime, the case is typically initiated by a government prosecutor. If the driver is convicted of a criminal offense, the potential consequences typically include prison time and/or monetary fines that must be paid to the government.

Whether or not there is a criminal component to the crash, the case may also need to be resolved in civil court. When a person faces a civil claim as a result of a traffic accident, it is usually initiated by or on behalf of someone who has been injured or killed as a result of the crash. The party who initiates such a claim is known in legal terms as the plaintiff, and the party defending against the claim is called a defendant.

The issue that must be resolved in a personal injury or wrongful death case is whether the injury or death was caused by the plaintiff's negligence. In the case of the recent bike crash, for instance, the victim's family may argue that the bicyclist was acting negligently when the crash occurred. If it is determined that the cyclist was speeding or failed to yield the right of way, for example, these factors could be used as evidence by the plaintiff's attorneys to support a claim of negligence.

In civil cases, rather than facing fines or imprisonment, a person who is found to be responsible for causing a crash can be ordered to pay money - known as "damages" - to the injured person or his or her dependents to help offset the losses they have suffered as a result of the crash.

Contact a lawyer if you have been hurt in a crash

If you or someone in your family has been hurt in a crash in New York, it is in your best interest to talk things over with a personal injury lawyer. Depending on the circumstances, you may have the option of pursuing compensation for your lost wages, medical expenses and other damages stemming from the accident.