Law Students: A Primer on How to Prove Criminal Negligence


Negligence is sometimes a criminal offense. In proving negligence, it does not matter if a person’s actions were unintentional, what matters is whether they caused harm to other people. When a person acts recklessly or overlooks apparent threats thereby jeopardizing the lives and safety of others; such a person is said to be criminally negligent. Some examples of criminal negligence include driving a car while drunk and killing someone in the process, firing a gun in the air at a crowded place and killing or injuring someone, and leaving a loaded gun within reach of a minor among other similar examples.

To be convicted for this crime, the prosecutor must prove that a defendant was criminally negligent and that the defendant’s actions are far from how a reasonable person would act. It is important to note that criminal negligence is different from civil negligence which is mostly concerned with cases of personal injury.

In cases of criminal negligence, criminal lawyers would combine some legal strategies to defend the accused. Attorneys must argue to prove that the accused party acted with reasonable care and only committed the crime accidentally.

Proving Criminal Negligence

To prove that a person is criminally negligent, the prosecutor must present evidence so strong that everyone is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offense. For a person to be found criminally negligent, they must have had a legal duty to act. Not every mistake or accident is considered criminal negligence. Some accidents happen due to inattention, carelessness, or error in judgment.

The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Negligence

Civil negligence often involves cases of negligence where the injury caused by the defendant is not so grievous as to be called criminal. These cases are often a result of not paying attention or a simple error in judgment. Workplace accidents are often addressed as civil negligence and are often settled as civil matters. Criminal negligence, on the other hand, is handled by the criminal courts and is often about cases where a person’s behavior is so reckless that it puts others in grievous harm.

Appropriate Defenses to Criminal Negligence?

Asides from arguing that the defendant exercised reasonable care, there are some other defenses available in cases of criminal negligence. The exact situation one is facing would determine what sort of defense one may decide to go with. Some of the popular defenses to criminal negligence include:

Accident or Error in judgment: If a lawyer can argue successfully that an incident occurred purely as a result of an error in judgment or an accident, a judge may find that the defendant is not criminally negligent.

No Lawful Duty: You may not be found criminally negligent if you had no legal duty to take action in the first place. For instance, it is a legal duty to not drink and drive, so someone who hurts another person while driving drunk may be found guilty of criminal negligence because they had a legal duty to not operate a vehicle while drunk. On the other hand, if a person leaves their underaged kids alone at home unsupervised and the kids get hurt while alone, the next-door neighbor who was home during the incident, may not be found criminally negligent except if they had agreed to watch the children. If they were not informed or had not agreed to keep an eye on the children, then they owed no legal duty and may not be found criminally negligent.

No Knowledge: The defendant must have known that a danger existed and chosen to ignore the danger, for them to be found criminally negligent. For instance, if a person notices a gas leak in their apartment building and reports this to the building manager or landlord and nothing is done until the building gets engulfed in flames, the landlord or building manager may be found criminally negligent for the lives lost in the fire. On the other hand, if a person smells gas and does not report this to anyone and the gas leak later causes a fire, the landlord may not be found criminally negligent if there was no way he could have known of the gas leak.

Involuntary Intoxication: A person would be found criminally negligent if they got drunk and drove a vehicle killing someone. However, if they had gotten intoxicated without their knowledge, they may not be found negligent. However, this is not a complete defense and the accused person may still be brought up on other charges. An example is if a person accidentally brings marijuana cookies to work and a colleague of theirs consumes the cookies before leaving the office in a car. The colleague may argue that they were not aware that the cookies were intoxicating.