What Is Criminal Negligence?

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Criminal negligence, also known as culpable negligence, is one of those gray areas of law that overlaps with others and varies by state. Broadly, criminal negligence is putting someone's life or body at risk of harm by meaningfully disobeying a law in place to protect people. Examples of criminal negligence are killing someone while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and endangering the life of a child.

How Do You Prove Criminal Negligence?

While most crimes involve intentional conduct, some crimes involve negligent or reckless conduct. There is a fine line between recklessness and negligence in criminal cases, and some courts and legislatures use the terms interchangeably. Reckless conduct is that in which the defendant is aware of the risk of his actions. On the other hand, to prove criminal negligence, you must prove that the defendant should have been aware of the risk. For example, in the case of criminally negligent homicide, you must prove that the defendant was culpable in the death of the other party and should have been aware of his actions and their potential to hurt others.

The prosecutor also has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. This is the highest standard of proof and it means that the evidence must be so strong that there is no other logical explanation besides criminal negligence. If applicable, the prosecutor also has to prove the defendant breached a duty to act imposed by the law (such as in a hit and run, in which the driver has a duty of care toward the victim), meaning mistakes and accidents are not considered criminal negligence.

Read More: How to Sue for Negligence

What Are the Major Defenses to Negligence?

Defenses for a charge of criminal negligence depend on the facts of the case. The major defenses to negligence are involuntary intoxication, having no legal duty to act, making a mistake and exercising reasonable care.

If a defendant can prove he owed no legal duty to the victim, his actions were the result of a mistake in judgment or an accident, he exercised reasonable care to avoid harming the victim, or he committed the crime while under the influence of alcohol or drugs either unknowingly or because of force, he may avoid criminal negligence. However, involuntary intoxication is not a complete defense, so the defendant can still be found guilty of some other charge.

Is Negligence Tort Law?

Tort law is a broad category of law covering violations in which one person’s behavior causes injury, suffering, unfair loss or harm to another person. Torts are civil (not criminal) laws, which means that the conduct may not be illegal, but still causes harm.

Civil (not criminal) negligence is one of the most common types of tort lawsuit. To prove negligence in a tort lawsuit, the victim has to prove that the defendant owed her a duty of care, that the defendant breached this duty of care, and that this breach caused the victim's injuries or losses.

Criminal Negligence Laws by State

Criminal negligence laws vary significantly by state, both in terms of the definition and what types of offenses may constitute criminal negligence.

In South Carolina, criminal negligence in relation to involuntary manslaughter is the reckless disregard of the safety of others. A person may be convicted of involuntary manslaughter only if criminal negligence is proved. This conviction carries a prison sentence of no more than five years.

In Colorado, criminal negligence is the failure to recognize risk caused by a lower standard of care than a reasonable person would exercise. Criminally negligent homicide (in which someone causes the death of another person by conduct amounting to criminal negligence) is a class 5 felony in Colorado, punishable by a sentence of one to three years in prison and a fine of $1,000 to $100,000.

In New York, a person may be convicted of assault in the third degree if her conduct amounts to criminal negligence, specifically by causing physical injury to the victim with a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument. This charge is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail or three years probation, plus a possible fine of up to $1,000.


  • Criminal negligence is a statutory offense that arises when someone puts someone else's life or body at risk of harm by purposely disobeying a law that's in place to protect people.