Death By Automobile in NJ

Traffic-related fatalities are a leading cause of death in New Jersey and across the country. In 2017 in the U.S., there were an estimated 37,133 deaths resulting from traffic accidents. Among those fatally injured, nearly 25% had some concentration of alcohol in their blood and 10% were deemed as being intoxicated (impaired). Males are the drivers in nearly 75% of fatal crashes. New Jersey also had 183 pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in 2017.

New Jersey Fatal Accidents







Distracted Driving Fatalities

While alcohol or drugs play a major role in fatal crashes, there are a host of other contributing factors. In New Jersey in 2017, driver inattention was clearly the leading proximate cause (196). According to the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, distracted driving has become a “dangerous epidemic.” It is a primary offense when a driver uses a hand-held device while driving. The term “primary” refers to an offense that is grounds for a traffic stop by a member of law enforcement.

If you think acts like texting while driving are no big deal—you better think again! Mobile device usage may now be considered as an act of “reckless vehicular homicide” when it results in bodily harm. The Lento Law Firm is acutely familiar with this area of law and is able to pursue a positive outcome.

Other Contributing Factors in Fatal Crashes

Pedestrians were found to have been the cause of roughly 150 fatal accidents. Unsafe speed was a contributor in 61 roadway deaths. Failing to keep right and failing to yield are the fourth and fifth most commonly cited causes.

Criminal Homicide

The most serious criminal offenses in New Jersey are generally those that result in loss of life. Criminal homicide is the provisional term used to describe when a motorist “purposely, knowingly, or recklessly” causes a fatality. The three forms of criminal homicide are murder, manslaughter, or death by automobile or vessel.

Understanding Manslaughter Involving a Vehicle

The offense of manslaughter is generally not applicable to traffic-related fatalities. It is often a charge seen in cases that may be misconstrued as murder. The difference is that there is not clear intent; instead, the offender acted with overall recklessness, indifference, or responded in the “heat of passion.” Manslaughter may apply when an individual causes someone's death while they are making an effort to elude or flee from an agent of law enforcement.

Death by Auto or Vessel

State statute 2C:11-5 states that reckless vehicle homicide may be inferred in several ways. It may occur when it can be proven that a driver fell asleep while operating the vehicle when they have not slept in the prior 24 hour period. Driving recklessly may be proven if the individual was found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.

A person is considered to be operating a vehicle under the influence when they have consumed an “intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug” or have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least .08%. Impairment may be caused by any chemical that is capable of creating an intoxicating effect. Law enforcement officers will make an assessment regarding whether there is any reason to believe that a driver is under the influence if they are involved in a vehicle accident that results in an injury, fatality, or damage to property.

The law deems it reasonable to infer that a driver was demonstrating recklessness if they were using a hand-held device at the time. In these cases, reckless homicide by vehicle is an offense of the second degree. Those who are determined to be driving under the influence or operating while their driver's license is under suspension or revocation will be sentenced to at least three years of incarceration. When it is proven that the driver failed to stay within their lane of travel, it also will constitute recklessness; however, if this is the lone form of such conduct, the crime will be a third-degree offense.

These offenses may be upgraded to a crime of the first degree under the following circumstances:

  • The vehicle was being operated on or within 1,000 feet of a school
  • The vehicle was being operated within a marked school crossing
  • This may apply in unmarked school crossings if juveniles are clearly present
  • If the driver is intoxicated when the accident occurs within these school settings, the court will impose a suspension of driving privileges for a minimum of five years
  • The offender may forfeit their vehicle involved unless it is proven that it would create “serious hardship” for the defendant's family

Strict Liability on Vehicular Homicide (2C:11-5.3)

New Jersey enacted “Ralph and David's Law” in 2017 that imposes strict liability when a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs causes a fatality. Strict liability vehicular homicide is a third-degree criminal offense; however, presumptions relating to non-imprisonment do not apply.

Fleeing the Scene of an Accident (2C:11-5.1)

A driver who knowingly leaves an accident scene resulting in a fatality may be charged with a second-degree criminal offense. The vehicle operator may not employ a defense that they were unaware that a fatality occurred or that they were unaware of the “elements of the offense.”


Maximum Incarceration

Maximum Fine

First-Degree Offense

20 years


Second-Degree Offense

10 years


Third-Degree Offense

7 years


Potential Civil Action for Wrongful Death

The surviving family of the deceased party may pursue financial compensation in a wrongful death lawsuit against someone who is responsible for reckless vehicular homicide. This is independent of any criminal action(s). During the criminal action, the defendant may ask the court to order that a guilty plea may not be admissible evidence in any such civil action. This is based on a Superior Court ruling that a guilty plea should be inadmissible in a “subsequent civil trial” because there may be “multiple factors that entered into a decision to plead guilty.”

Importance of Experienced Legal Representation

When a motor vehicle accident results in a fatality, the New Jersey courts may impose significant penalties for criminal homicide. Those who are charged with such offenses cannot afford to consider substandard legal representation. It is critical to retain a seasoned criminal defense attorney who will aggressively challenge such allegations.

Defense Attorney for Vehicular Homicide Cases in New Jersey

Attorney Joseph D. Lento has been representing clients in cases where a motorist is alleged to have caused severe injuries or a fatality. He will work to create a comprehensive defense strategy and ensure your rights are protected. For a confidential case evaluation, contact the office at (888) 535-3686 today.

​​​Contact The Lento Law Firm Today

When it comes to criminal defense cases, you need the right person in your corner. To learn more about how Mr. Lento can help you, call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686. or contact him online.

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