Delay and Lessening of Charges in Criminal Trial Shows Complexities in litigation

In the town of Duson, a mother of a child slain in a car accident is frustrated and discouraged by the legal system after years of delay in the prosecution of the responsible driver. What’s more, there now remains the possibility that charges may be lessened against the man charged in her son’s death. This situation is an extremely unfortunate one but does illustrate the differences between civil and criminal litigation, as well as the standards involved.

21-year-old Shawn Lancon was killed when the driver of the vehicle in which he was a passenger drove their vehicle into oncoming traffic while attempting to make a left turn. The driver, the man charged in Lancon’s death, was under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time of the accident. This accident took place in 2007. Three years later, delays in going to trial are still anticipated and now the defense is trying to lessen the criminal charges from vehicular homocide to a first-offense OWI. The OWI charge comes with considerably less jail-time, leading to the anger being expressed in the community.

The reasons for all of these issues are varying. The defense is attempting to lessen the criminal charges by insisting that the blood alcohol level is not high enough for a vehicular homicide, and also that the positive drug test should be excluded because the drugs detected by the drug test does not prove that the drugs were “active” at the time of the accident. Procedural delay is slowing the calendar for trial, due to courts having to postpone cases in Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermillion parishes due to a legal dispute within the court system regarding the allotment of judges.

The delay is importantly going to also delay the plaintiff’s ability to sue in civil court.
After a criminal conviction, the plaintiff is often able to bring suit in civil court under
negligence and wrongful death causes of action. In civil court, the plaintiff may bring suit under a negligence cause of action. In a case of negligence, the plaintiff must prove a duty to conform to a standard of conduct, a breach of that duty, that the breach was the acual and proximate cause of the injury, and damages.

Also under civil law, wrongful death statutes provide a legal remedy for being responsible for the death of another human being. Historically, under common law, a wrongful death cause of action was not available and only criminal law was an option. Under statutory law, however, a person can be held responsible in civil court in addition to criminal court for wrongful death.

The applicable Louisiana Civil Code wrongful death statute is under Book 3, Title 5, Chapter 3, Article 2315.2. The Code Article states

If a person dies due to the fault of another, suit may be brought […] to recover damages which they sustained as a result of the death.” Under the statute, among the claimants that may bring suit under the statute include the mother of the deceased child in this case.

The burden of proof in a civil case is also a lesser standard when compared to criminal cases. In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove guilt by a preponderance of the evidence. For example, in a negligence case the plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that a duty of care has been breached. The burden of proof in a criminal case has a much higher threshold. In a criminal case the plaintiff must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The lower threshold when suing the responsible party directly makes it easier for the plaintiff to recover in civil court.

If you have a case in criminal court, remember that a civil case can also be brought and that you will need a knowledgeable attorney experienced in civil law matters to assist you in recovering the damages that you deserve.