Wrongful Death vs. Criminal Homicide: Legal Distinctions in Boston

In the world of legal proceedings, cases that involve the loss of human life are emotionally charged and legally complex. When a death occurs, especially due to the actions of another person, the legal system steps in to provide a framework for justice. 

Two fundamental concepts that often come into play in such cases are wrongful death and criminal homicide. Although the terms wrongful death and homicide might appear similar, they actually have distinct meanings and implications.

Understanding Wrongful Death

Wrongful death is a legal term that refers to a civil action brought by the surviving family members or beneficiaries of a deceased individual whose death was caused by the negligent, reckless, or intentional actions of another party. Unlike criminal homicide, which involves state prosecution and the potential for imprisonment, wrongful death cases are civil matters that primarily seek monetary compensation for the losses suffered by the deceased’s family.

Basis of Liability

In wrongful death cases, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff (the deceased’s family) to demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the death and that these actions breached a legal duty of care owed to the deceased. This duty of care varies based on the circumstances but generally involves acting in a reasonable and prudent manner to prevent harm to others. For instance, in cases involving medical malpractice, the duty of care for healthcare professionals is to provide treatment consistent with accepted medical standards.

Compensation and Damages

If the plaintiff successfully proves their case, they may be awarded damages to cover various losses incurred due to the death. These damages can include medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, loss of financial support, loss of companionship, and emotional distress. Unlike criminal cases, where the focus is on punishment, wrongful death cases aim to alleviate the financial and emotional burdens faced by the deceased’s family.

Criminal Homicide: Degrees and Elements

Degrees of Criminal Homicide

Criminal homicide encompasses a broader range of offenses, varying in severity and intent. In Massachusetts, criminal homicide is categorized into three main degrees: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter.

  • First-Degree Murder: This is the most serious charge and involves intentional killing with premeditation and deliberation. It may also apply in cases involving felony murder, where a death occurs during the commission of a serious felony, even if the intent to kill was not present.
  • Second-Degree Murder: Second-degree murder lacks the premeditation and deliberation required for first-degree murder. It involves intentional killing without the specific intent to cause death.
  • Manslaughter: Manslaughter is characterized by the absence of malice aforethought. It encompasses two categories: voluntary manslaughter, which involves intentional killing under mitigating circumstances, and involuntary manslaughter, which pertains to unintentional killings resulting from reckless behavior or criminal negligence.

Elements of Criminal Homicide

To secure a conviction in a criminal homicide case, the prosecution must prove certain elements, which vary based on the degree of the charge. For first-degree murder, premeditation and deliberate intent are key elements. Second-degree murder requires the demonstration of intent to kill, while manslaughter necessitates proving recklessness, criminal negligence, or mitigating circumstances.

Legal Distinctions and Implications

Burden of Proof and Standard

One of the primary distinctions between wrongful death and criminal homicide cases lies in the burden of proof. In wrongful death cases, the burden rests on the plaintiff to prove negligence or wrongful conduct by a preponderance of the evidence – meaning it is more likely than not that the defendant’s actions caused the death. In criminal homicide cases, the prosecution bears the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a significantly higher standard.

Penalties and Consequences

The consequences of being found liable in a wrongful death case primarily involve financial compensation. The defendant may be required to pay damages to the deceased’s family, but they do not face imprisonment. On the other hand, a conviction in a criminal homicide case can result in severe penalties, including incarceration, fines, and, in some cases, life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Double Jeopardy

Another critical legal distinction relates to the concept of double jeopardy. In the United States, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from being tried twice for the same offense. However, since wrongful death cases are civil matters and criminal homicide cases are criminal matters, a defendant may face both types of cases without violating the double jeopardy clause.

Hiring a Wrongful Death Attorney in Boston: Navigating the Complexities

Navigating the complexities of wrongful death and criminal homicide cases in Boston requires expert legal guidance. Whether you are a plaintiff seeking compensation for the loss of a loved one or an individual facing criminal charges, enlisting the services of an experienced attorney is crucial.  

Wrongful death attorneys in Boston specializing in these areas possess the knowledge, expertise, and resources to meticulously analyze evidence, build a strong case, and ensure your rights are protected. From conducting thorough investigations to navigating intricate legal procedures, an attorney can provide invaluable support and advocacy. Given the high stakes involved in these cases, hiring a skilled attorney is not only a practical step but also an essential one in pursuing justice and securing the best possible outcome.


The legal distinctions between wrongful death and criminal homicide are essential in shaping the course of justice for cases involving the loss of life in Boston. Wrongful death cases center on civil actions seeking compensation for the family’s losses, while criminal homicide cases involve criminal charges, penalties, and potential imprisonment. 

Understanding these distinctions is crucial for both legal practitioners and the general public, as they highlight the nuances of the legal system’s response to tragic circumstances. Whether in the realm of civil litigation or criminal prosecution, these legal concepts underscore the multifaceted nature of justice and the need for careful consideration of evidence, intent, and culpability.


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