Define: Accidental Killing

Accidental Killing
Accidental Killing
Quick Summary of Accidental Killing

A death caused by a lawful act done under the reasonable belief that no harm was likely to result.

Accidental killing in UK law refers to situations where a person causes the death of another unintentionally, without malice or premeditation. These cases often involve tragic accidents or unforeseen circumstances where death occurs as an unintended consequence of someone’s actions. In legal terms, accidental killing may be classified as manslaughter if the actions leading to death were reckless or negligent but lacked the specific intent to cause harm. The legal system distinguishes accidental killing from murder, which involves deliberate and premeditated intent to cause death. Cases of accidental killing are carefully evaluated to determine culpability, taking into account factors such as foreseeability, reasonable care, and the circumstances surrounding the incident.

What is the dictionary definition of Accidental Killing?
Dictionary Definition of Accidental Killing

Accidental Killing: noun

1. The act of causing the death of another person unintentionally or without premeditation, typically resulting from a sudden and unforeseen event or circumstance.

2. A situation in which a person’s actions, although not intended to cause harm or death, lead to the accidental loss of another person’s life.

3. The unintentional or inadvertent act of causing the death of another individual, often occurring as a result of negligence, carelessness, or a series of unfortunate events.

Example sentence: The driver’s accidental killing of a pedestrian occurred when they lost control of their vehicle due to a mechanical failure.

Accidental killing refers to the unintentional cause of another person’s death. It occurs when a person, while engaged in a lawful activity, accidentally causes the death of another person without any intent or premeditation. Accidental killing is generally considered a form of manslaughter, which is a criminal offence.

In legal terms, accidental killing can be categorised into two types: voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person, in the heat of passion or under extreme emotional distress, unintentionally causes the death of another person. Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, occurs when a person unintentionally causes the death of another person through reckless or negligent behaviour.

To establish accidental killing as a criminal offence, the prosecution must prove that the defendant had a duty of care towards the victim, that the defendant breached that duty through their actions or omissions, and that the breach of duty caused the victim’s death. The prosecution must also establish that the defendant’s actions were reckless or negligent, meaning that a reasonable person would have foreseen the risk of harm and taken steps to prevent it.

The consequences for accidental killing vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of the case. In some cases, the defendant may face criminal charges and, if convicted, may be sentenced to imprisonment or other penalties. In other cases, accidental killing may be treated as a civil matter, and the defendant may be held liable for damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.

It is important to note that accidental killing is distinct from intentional killing, such as murder or manslaughter. Intent plays a crucial role in determining the appropriate legal charges and penalties. Accidental killing, while still a serious offence, is generally considered less severe than intentional killing due to the absence of intent or premeditation.

Full Definition Of Accidental Killing

Accidental killing is different from involuntary manslaughter, which causes death by an unlawful act or a lawful act done in an unlawful way.

The common law of crimes distinguished two types of accidental killings: (1) accidental killings resulting from unlawful acts of violence not directed at the victim were punishable as manslaughter (killings resulting from unlawful acts directed at the victim were punishable as murder); and (2) accidental killings resulting from lawful acts of violence were excusable as homicide by misadventure.

For example, suppose that the defendant killed an innocent bystander while carrying out an assault, battery, or other violent crime against the intended victim. The defendant told police that he intended to injure the victim by hitting him with a club but instead struck the bystander on the skull and killed him. The defendant could be prosecuted for manslaughter under the common law of crimes.

Now suppose that the defendant was lawfully defending himself or his property from attack and, in the process, killed an innocent bystander. The defendant told police that lethal force was necessary to thwart an attack upon his person, and he tried to shoot the attacker but instead killed a nearby pedestrian, who had nothing to do with the attack. The common law would have treated the bystander’s death as an excusable accidental killing, so long as reasonable grounds existed for the defendant’s belief that lethal force was necessary for self-defence.

Although most states have abolished the common law of crimes, some of the concepts underlying the common law distinctions between manslaughter and accidental killings continue to appear in statutory classifications of manslaughter.

Most states recognise at least two classes of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. In these states, voluntary manslaughter is defined as an act of murder reduced to manslaughter because of extenuating circumstances such as adequate provocation (for example, murder committed in the heat of passion) or diminished capacity. Involuntary manslaughter is defined in these states as a homicide that is committed with criminal negligence or during the commission of a crime that is not included within the felony-murder rule but for which the prosecution has no proof that the defendant intended to kill the victim or do grievous bodily harm.

Accidental killings that do not result from the defendant’s criminal negligence and do not occur during the commission of a crime are not criminal offences in these jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions expressly classify accidental killings as excusable or justifiable homicides, such as the state of California, which provides that “homicide is excusable… when committed by accident and misfortune, or in doing any other lawful act by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent.” CA PENAL § 195. Other states simply omit this class of homicide from their statutes defining prosecutable offences.

Accidental Killing FAQ'S

Accidental killing refers to causing someone’s death unintentionally or without premeditation. It occurs when a person’s actions, though not intended to harm others, result in the death of another individual.

Some examples of accidental killing are unintentional car accidents resulting in fatalities, accidental discharge of firearms, unintended consequences of medical procedures, accidental poisoning, and other situations where someone’s death occurs without malicious intent.

Accidental killing differs from manslaughter or murder in that it lacks the element of intent. Manslaughter involves causing someone’s death through reckless behaviour or negligence, while murder involves deliberate and premeditated killing.

In some cases, accidental killings may lead to criminal charges, particularly if negligence or recklessness is involved. However, prosecutors typically consider factors such as intent, foreseeability, and the circumstances surrounding the incident when determining whether to file charges.

Liability for accidental killing may depend on various factors, including the degree of negligence or recklessness involved, whether the person responsible for the death had a duty of care, the foreseeability of harm, and whether reasonable precautions were taken to prevent the accident.

Yes, the family members or estate of the deceased may file a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for damages resulting from an accidental killing. This could include medical expenses, funeral costs, loss of income, and pain and suffering.

Some of the defences in cases of accidental killing may include lack of intent, lack of foreseeability, self-defence or defence of others, necessity, and contributory negligence on the part of the victim.

Accidental killing may be covered by liability insurance policies, such as auto insurance or homeowners insurance, depending on the circumstances of the incident and the terms of the policy.

If you’re involved in an accidental killing, it’s important to remain at the scene, call emergency services, and cooperate with law enforcement. You should also seek legal counsel to understand your rights and obligations under the law.

Accidental killing can be prevented by taking reasonable precautions, such as following safety guidelines, obeying traffic laws, properly storing and handling firearms, and being aware of potential hazards in various situations. It’s also important to act responsibly and exercise caution to avoid accidents that could result in harm to others.


This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 10th April 2024.

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