Can You Go to Jail for Accidentally Killing Someone in a Car Accident?

Can You Go to Jail for Accidentally Killing Someone in a Car Accident?

Vehicular accidents are one of the most common causes of death in the United States (U.S.). Statistics show that every year, more than one million people across the globe are killed as a result of being involved in a car crash.

In 2020, a total of 35,766 car accidents in the U.S. alone were fatal. Moreover, 1,593,390 accidents resulted in injuries, while 3,621,681 entailed property damages.

The law that encompasses car accident fatalities and injuries works to protect not only the victims of the crash but also those involved in the accident who aren’t at fault.

But what happens if a car accident that you were responsible for resulted in the death of an individual? Will you be facing jail time for such? What are the possible criminal charges that can be filed against you?

This write-up will provide answers to these questions. Moreover, this article will discuss the intricacies of vehicular homicide and manslaughter. It will also explain the role of negligence in a car crash scenario.

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What Is Considered “Reckless Driving”?

In most states, reckless driving is the act of a person who operates a motor vehicle in willful or utter disregard for the safety of other persons.

Given its somewhat broad and vague definition, here are some common acts that are considered reckless driving:

  • Speeding – Traveling 20 miles or more above the posted speed limit in an area is considered reckless driving in most states. Moreover, driving your vehicle over 80 miles per hour can also translate to a reckless driving charge in most states.

  • DUI (driving under the influence) – Simply put, DUI means that you were operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Drunk driving is a serious violation that constitutes reckless driving.

  • Distracted driving – This means that the driver’s focus is deviated from their driving at the time of the accident. Distracted driving implies using mobile phones, navigational devices, entertainment systems, or other activities that hinder the driver’s focus.

  • Swerving – This reckless driving conduct refers to the back-and-forth movement of a vehicle between lanes at dangerously high speeds.

Note that the above are only common examples of reckless driving conduct. Some other acts may also constitute reckless driving, depending on state law.

Which Is Worse – Vehicular Homicide or Manslaughter?

The definition of vehicular manslaughter in some states is different from others, and the concept of vehicular homicide may apply to some.

Vehicular homicide involves causing the death of someone by speeding in a construction zone or driving negligently. Negligence is critical when determining if the offense can be classified as such. 

Meanwhile, vehicular manslaughter involves a driver who unintentionally causes the death of someone due to committing minor misdemeanor traffic violations, like running a red light or speeding.

Suppose you are in a state where a vehicular homicide can be charged against you. In that case, your situation will likely depend on the accident’s circumstances.

As an example, in Ohio, if you were the at-fault party for someone’s death in a car accident, you are likely to face a vehicular homicide charge unless the death resulted from a minor traffic offense or infringement.

Vehicular homicide is considered a more serious charge than vehicular manslaughter. However, it does not directly mean that you, as the driver, deliberately intended to cause death or serious injury. Vehicular homicide is less severe than regular homicide.

What Is Vehicular Homicide?

Vehicular homicide occurs when a person is responsible for the death of another person while operating a motor vehicle recklessly. 

For example, under Florida’s law, vehicular homicide is classified as a second-degree felony, carrying a possible jail time of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Moreover, suppose the driver was found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the crash. In that case, they may face more severe penalties, including a minimum sentence of four years.

To be charged with vehicular homicide, a reasonable doubt that the at-fault is criminally negligent and their conduct was the proximate cause of the death must be established by the prosecution.

Simply put, this means that the at-fault driver’s actions must have led to a substantial risk of death or severe bodily injuries and that risk has resulted in the death of a person.

Vehicular Homicide Without Providing Information or Rendering Aid

Some states, including Florida, recognize a different form of vehicular homicide when the driver fails to give their information or provide assistance at the car crash scene. This enhanced form of vehicular homicide carries a punishment of up to 30 years of incarceration.

For a person to face charges of this type of vehicular homicide, the prosecution must initially prove that the at-fault driver was aware that they were involved in the accident and that they deliberately failed to provide information or render aid for such.

This offense is a serious case, and prosecutors may seek to impose harsh punishments on persons found guilty.

What Is Manslaughter?

In America, manslaughter is defined as the unintentional killing of another individual. Various legal concepts come into play when defining manslaughter, but the most important facet is “malice aforethought.”

In simpler terms, malice aforethought means that an individual intended to do malicious acts before committing the act itself.

If malice aforethought is not proven or present in a case, then the case will more likely be labeled as manslaughter instead of homicide.

Involuntary Manslaughter Explained

When considering a case where someone was killed, one of the most vital things to be established by the court is the defendant’s responsibility for the death.

For example, if you were involved in a car crash where someone was killed, you would not be necessarily charged with a crime right away.

However, suppose the court says that you did not intend to cause harm, but you caused the death of another person by driving recklessly. In that case, you can face charges of involuntary manslaughter.

What Is Vehicular Manslaughter?

As mentioned and as the name implies, vehicular manslaughter is a form of manslaughter associated with car accidents. If you were deemed at fault for an accident that led to the death of another person, a court may hold you liable and charge you.

Note that not all fatal accidents automatically translate to a manslaughter charge. The decision to charge someone with vehicular manslaughter relies on various factors.

A charge of vehicular manslaughter is unlikely if the accident was beyond your control. For instance, if the road conditions were poor or a freak accident transpired, then it is improbable that you would be deemed to be at fault.

Second-degree Murder With a Deadly Weapon

Second-degree murder with a deadly weapon means that a person used their vehicle as a tool to kill someone.

This type of murder is classified as a category A felony. It is punishable in most states by a minimum of 25 years of jail time. A category A felony will also result in a permanent criminal record for the accused.

In cases where someone deliberately inflicts harm on another individual, charges cannot be based on negligence, as the actions committed weren’t unintentional or accidental.

What Is “Negligence”?

In the context of criminal law, some states define negligence as the lack of attention that an ordinarily prudent individual would exercise in their own business concerning the nature or probable consequences of an act or omission.

Overspeeding, distracted driving, and driving under the influence are common factors affecting a driver’s liability for negligence.

Which Factors Can Affect Your Time in Prison?

Under federal law, someone who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter may be subject to a maximum of eight years of incarceration in federal prison.

However, per the federal sentencing guidelines, the base sentence for this crime is typically 10 to 16 months of jail time. This may increase to 27 to 33 months if the underlying behavior is determined to be reckless conduct.

In cases involving a motor vehicle’s reckless operation, the base sentence is 41 to 51 months.

On the other hand, state laws generally use a range of possible sentences, and judges have broad discretion for the appropriate sentence.

Criminal Negligence

As stated above, criminal negligence, otherwise known as vehicular manslaughter in a car accident case, refers to the act of killing another person without malice or any ill intent.

Driving Under the Influence

A mandatory prison term of four years is imposed on someone who is charged with DUI (driving under the influence) that resulted in death. A judge also has the discretion to give a sentence up to 30 years, depending on the severity of the case.

Violating a Safety Statute

Below are some common examples of violating a safety statute: 

  • Reckless driving
  • Violating traffic laws, such as beating a red light
  • Driving under the influence
  • Falling asleep while driving
  • Operating an improperly maintained vehicle

Difference Between Vehicular Homicide and DUI Manslaughter

To discuss the difference between vehicular homicide and DUI manslaughter, we’ll use the state of Florida as an example.

In Florida, being charged with DUI manslaughter means you’ll face a second-degree felony, which translates to up to 15 years of incarceration.

On the other hand, a vehicular homicide charge carries a minimum incarceration of nine years and three months. Still, it can increase to up to 30 years if it is found that you fled the scene.

Vehicular Manslaughter vs. Gross Vehicular Manslaughter

A vehicular manslaughter charge is considered a felony but with fewer penalties. Although it means that the person charged with vehicular manslaughter was negligent at the time of the accident, there wasn’t gross negligence, such as in a DUI case.

If you were given a chance to make a plea bargain, a vehicular manslaughter case is less serious than gross vehicular manslaughter.

DUI Enhancement

In some states, a DUI enhancement refers to any aspect that can worsen the severity of an underlying DUI charge. For instance, the most common types of DUI enhancements in Florida are the following:

  • Prior DUI convictions
  • High blood alcohol concentration
  • DUI that involves property damages and serious bodily injuries
  • DUI manslaughter

DUI enhancements can result in longer incarceration, significant fines, and extended duration of license suspension. Additionally, more serious enhancements, such as DUI manslaughter, can lead to permanent driver’s license revocation.

What About the Other Driver?

It is common for both parties involved in a car accident to share some responsibility, with courts (depending on where the accident happened) often using the contributory negligence rule to determine who pays for what based on shared fault.

 However, in vehicular manslaughter cases in a criminal context, contributory negligence is rarely applied.

For instance, if the victim had a blood alcohol level beyond the legal limit but the defendant engaged in reckless driving, leading to the victim’s accidental death, evidence of the deceased’s blood alcohol level might not be admissible.

Can a Non-driver Be Charged With Vehicular Manslaughter?

In most cases involving vehicular homicide, the defendant is alleged to be the one behind the steering wheel. However, in some occasions, a prosecutor may charge a defendant with vehicular homicide even if it is an undisputed fact that the defendant was not driving the vehicle involved in the other person’s death.

The Penalties for Vehicular Homicide Are Severe

In most states, committing vehicular homicide is a second-degree felony. According to Florida’s statute, you can face up to 15 years in prison.

However, there are exceptions. For instance, if you fled the scene after a vehicular accident, you can be charged with a first-degree felony, potentially leading to up to 30 years of incarceration.

Also, you could receive up to 15 years of probation after the fact and fines of up to $10,000.

Penalties for Causing Severe Bodily Harm

In Florida, a serious bodily injury is defined as an injury to an individual, including the driver, resulting in a physical condition posing a risk of death, severe personal disfigurement, or loss or impairment of the function of a body organ.

If your situation meets this definition, you may be subject to a license suspension for up to three years or a minimum jail time of four years or both. This is in addition to any jail time associated with a vehicular homicide charge.

Penalties for Vehicular Homicide and Vehicular Manslaughter

Due to their differences in severity, vehicular manslaughter has a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum sentence of 20 years. Meanwhile, vehicular homicide mandates at least nine years and three months in prison and a maximum term of 30 years.

Penalties for Fleeing the Scene of a Car Crash

If you were at fault for an automobile accident and fled the scene, you may face severe cases in the long run. For instance, if you killed someone in a hit-and-run case, you will be facing significant charges in addition to your initial charge.

The judge can impose an additional 4 to 30 years of jail time and up to 30 years of probation. You will also be required to pay a fine of up to $10,000.

Vehicular Homicide While Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs Is a Felony Offense

According to Florida statute, a regular DUI case becomes more severe if someone is killed as a result. Initially, a DUI would be classified as a misdemeanor case. Still, if fatalities were present, it would be changed to a felony.

DUI manslaughter is a second-degree felony and may include charges of up to 15 years in prison, up to 15 years of probation, and fines of up to $10,000.

DUI manslaughter has a minimum incarceration period of four years. It’s also highly probable that you would be facing the following:

  • Revocation of driver’s license
  • Community service
  • Psychosocial evaluation
  • Vehicle impoundment
  • Alcohol or substance abuse program

Average Prison Sentence for DUI Manslaughter

The potential sentence for DUI manslaughter varies based on factors such as the circumstances of the accident, your driving history, and the state’s laws.

The court will distinguish between regular and gross negligence to determine the appropriate sentencing.

For instance, in California, you could receive a sentence from 1 to 10 years for vehicular manslaughter with a DUI.

Does the Driver Additionally Face Criminal Charges?

In almost all instances, if you’re the driver in a vehicular manslaughter case, you will face criminal charges. The prosecution will have to prove the following in this regard:

  • Another person or an unborn child or both was killed
  • The death of the person was caused by the auto vehicle you were driving at the time of the accident
  • You were operating the vehicle with reckless disregard for other people’s lives

Can the Passenger Be Charged With Vehicular Manslaughter?

Per Florida statutes, the person charged with vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter must be the one behind the steering wheel at the time of the accident.

However, this doesn’t mean you won’t be charged if you weren’t operating the vehicle. A great example is if a passenger pulls the wheel out of the driver’s hands, causing them to be distracted.

Are You Innocent?

In most cases that caused the loss of human life, the court must prove a negligent manner to convict a person.

The below topics will discuss several circumstances that may indicate a person’s innocence in a car crash scenario that resulted in a wrongful death.

Lack of Causation

Simply put, lack of causation means the person did not cause the accident directly. A convicted person may be deemed innocent if the crash resulted from the vehicle’s mechanical malfunction or poor road conditions.


A convicted person can be innocent if the accident was proven to result from them defending themselves or other people from harm. Self-defense may imply applying brakes, swerving, or overcorrecting deliberately to steer clear of a collision.

Unforeseeable Event

Unforeseeable events, such as an animal running in front of the vehicle or a large tree falling onto the road, may also be considered when determining a person’s innocence in a car crash accident.

Medical Emergency

Suppose a person sustained a sudden medical emergency, such as a stroke, seizure, or heart attack, and was not in control of their car at the time of the crash. In that case, a legal team may be able to make arguments in court.

Do I Need a Lawyer When a Death Results From a Car Accident?

Suppose you were responsible for a fatal car accident or you have lost a friend or a family member due to one. In that case, you must seek the legal advice of an experienced attorney from a reputable law firm.

If you need to look for the best car crash attorneys anywhere in the U.S., can help you find one for your legal needs. 

Our online directory lets you search car accident lawyers by name and state so you can immediately work with one near you. Some even offer free consultation.

What to Expect if You Are Involved in a Fatal Car Accident

Suppose you were involved in a fatal automobile accident. In that case, contact law enforcement and report the incident right away. Remember to remain present at the scene until the authorities arrive and cooperate with the investigation.

A car crash case that involves fatality is often lengthy, complex, and emotional. A police officer will investigate to determine who or what caused the accident.

Although talking about the incident with your loved ones is human nature, you should discuss the case only with your lawyer. Remember that statements made to friends and family can also be used against you in court.

Possible Defenses a Car Accident Attorney Can Use

Defending your case against a vehicular homicide charge can be challenging, but it is possible. For example, proving that your speeding wasn’t excessive can significantly help you in your case.

Other defenses may also include the following:

  • Lack of gross negligence
  • Retrograde extrapolation (meaning too much time has already passed to check you for drugs or alcohol influence)
  • Insufficient evidence
  • Causation
  • Mistaken identity

Court Defense Strategies for DUI Manslaughter Cases

Below are some strategies a criminal defense attorney can use for a DUI manslaughter defense.

  • DUI entrapment
  • DUI necessity defense
  • DUI duress
  • Illegal search
  • Miranda Warning was not enforced
  • Speedy trial violations
  • The pedestrian was negligent
  • Other intervening causes

Extenuating Circumstances for DUI Manslaughter Accusations

Below are some circumstances your defense lawyer can prove to extenuate your DUI manslaughter charge.

  • You weren’t driving at the time of the accident
  • You weren’t impaired
  • You weren’t responsible for the crash
  • The pedestrian was at fault
  • There were errors or miscalibrations in the breathalyzer test

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Can I recover compensation for my injuries?

Damages, such as medical fees for the victim, can be recovered in a car crash case. When someone dies due to an accident, there are also recoverable damages for losses relating to the victim’s income, loss of companionship, and more.

2. Is there ever a reason you would not be at fault for killing someone with your car?

Yes. For example, there are cases where pedestrians wander into traffic or directly in front of a vehicle. Another instance could be that you were hit by another vehicle and spun into a pedestrian or another car, resulting in a fatality.


  1. Property damage cases
  2. Non-Injury Vehicle Collisions
  3. Vehicular Manslaughter: Sentencing, Laws and Penalties
  4. Is It Possible to Go to Jail for Accidentally Killing Someone?

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