Are Car Accidents Civil Or Criminal?

Car accidents are usually civil incidents, however, there are several ways in which an accident can escalate and become a criminal offense.


When a driver accidentally hits another vehicle or a pedestrian, he or she is required to stop at the scene even in the case of a minor accident. The motorist must then follow proper post-accident protocol. This includes an exchange of information with the other driver(s) and parties, including name, contact information, and insurance information. A driver who strikes another vehicle or pedestrian and then leaves the scene of the accident may face criminal charges. The specific charge that the driver will face typically depends on the outcome of the accident. Penalties for a hit-and-run may include loss of driving privileges, increased insurance premiums, a felony arrest, and a prison sentence. The most serious criminal charges accompany car accidents that cause traumatic injuries or death.


In all 50 states, it’s illegal for a driver to drive while intoxicated or impaired and have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. Criminal penalties vary based upon whether it is a motorist’s first offense, second offense, third offense, and-or whether he or she has been previously convicted. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) lists penalties for an alcohol or drug-related violation. These penalties include fines, a license suspension period, a drinking and driving program, and increased insurance costs.

Penalties of a DWI arrest may also include jail or other sentencing alternatives. A driver who causes serious physical injury or death while committing a DUI, DWI or DWAI, could be facing very serious felony charges including aggravated vehicular assault, criminally negligent homicide, vehicular manslaughter, and murder in the second degree. A DWI with a child 15 years of age or younger in the car is a class E felony

Reckless Driving

Basically, the law states that it is unlawful for a motorist to drive in a manner that may endanger another person. Reckless driving in New York consists of driving or using any motor vehicle in a manner which “unreasonably interferes with the free and proper use of the public highway, or unreasonably endangers users of the public highway.” (Vehicle and Traffic Law §1212). Drivers may face criminal charges if they kill a person with their vehicle, but only under specific circumstances as defined by the NY Penal Law. Reckless driving is one of these circumstances. For example, if a motorist is driving at 100 miles per hour in a school zone, then any pedestrian death resulting from the crash may bring on a criminal charge of vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide.

If the driver is at fault but another person’s death was truly an accident and there are no aggravating circumstances, like reckless driving, criminal charges will be unlikely, but the driver may still face a civil lawsuit. A lawsuit or insurance claim will first look to establish the driver’s fault for the accident. Next, the victim of the accident will seek compensation for all injuries and damages associated with the accident, including payment for medical treatment, lost wages, pain and suffering, and any other relevant losses related to the crash.

If negligence can be proven in the case of any car accident, and criminal charges are filed, the family of the deceased can still file a civil lawsuit. Wrongful death laws allow the surviving family of a deceased person to bring a civil lawsuit against those responsible for causing the death.

A car accident would likely be neither a civil or criminal case if an unforeseen event, for example, a tire blowout, causes a person to crash into another car.

For over 40 years, David H. Perecman has distinguished himself as one of the leading personal injury lawyers in New York City, championing all types of personal injury cases including construction accidents, premises accidents, automobile accidents, and medical malpractice, along with employment discrimination, false arrest, and civil rights cases.