If you lost a loved one due to murder or manslaughter, you can pursue a wrongful death civil suit against the perpetrator. There are factors you should be aware of when initiating a suit against various entities and persons, and there are some real-life cases to illustrate these.
Working with Civil Trial Standards
The most famous case of someone being civilly sued for murder was that of O.J. Simpson for the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson. Even though O.J. was acquitted for the murders, the families prevailed in civil court and won a $25 million judgment. The Goldman family was awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages as well.
In civil trials, the standard to prevail is lower than in criminal court, and from a "preponderance of the evidence" the jury may find it more likely than not that the defendant is responsible. Jurors did not believe that O,J.'s testimony was credible and they thought the evidence against him was sufficient to award damages to the plaintiffs. Also, evidence that would be inadmissible in criminal court, may be allowed in civil court, which can affect either side of the case.
Though a jury must hand down a unanimous decision in a criminal case, a majority of jurors in agreement will meet the preponderance standard. In O.J.'s civil trial, the verdict for the Goldman's compensatory damages was unanimous, but for the big award, the jury was split 10/2.
Considering the Financial Means of Defendants
The parents of the teenager Trayvon Martin sued the homeowners association of the sub-division where their son was killed, and this resulted in an undisclosed settlement that is rumored to be $1 million or more.
The family intended to sue George Zimmerman, (the shooter who claimed self defense) but there is no online record of them doing so. They may have decided against it due to Zimmerman's financial standing.
While this may sound like the plaintiffs are 'only in it for the money', this is a valid concern of both plaintiffs and attorneys because civil lawsuits can be expensive to present due to attorney hours spent on case, court fees, administrative fees, and additional expenses. The fees of just one expert witness can range be $351 to $488 an hour or more, plus evidence in the form of computer animations and other displays can also be costly.
Overcoming Bias For Police Defendants
Suing the police presents several problems for families of a slain citizen. Families often feel intimidated by the police and the system that protects them. The second is that the court system favors the testimony of the police over private citizens, making it difficult to prevail.
However, there have been cases where plaintiffs did win. In fact, as difficult as it is to sue, they are more likely to get a settlement from a government entity than they are to see the officer severely disciplined, discharged, or charged with a criminal offence.
In Nevada, a woman named Deshiral Selimaj was killed by police while holding a knife, but witnesses felt she posed no immediate threat to them. Her family sued the Henderson county police department and won $700,000. In another case, unarmed Lamar Kiles was shot and permanently disabled by an officer. It is felt he prevailed in his lawsuit ($3 million settlement) because he lived to tell his version of events. Since juries are more likely to believe the police, the evidence gathered must be compelling to overcome this bias.
To Sum Up:
These cases show that in civil suits due to murder or manslaughter, the plaintiffs:
- Have advantages using the preponderance of evidence standard, and the number of jurors to determine responsibility need only be a majority.
- Should know civil cases may allow evidence that would not be admissible in criminal court.
- Will need to consider the defendant's ability to pay a settlement.
- Have to have a higher standard of evidence in a civil suit against the police.
To pursue a wrongful death case, you will need to contact a personal injury attorney like one from Bangel, Bangel, & Bangel.