The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported in 2015 that about 15,700 were murdered in the United States. Some of the perpetrators of these horrific crimes were identified, arrested, and prosecuted. However, not all of the individuals responsible for taking these lives were arrested in the first instance. In addition, even among those men and women responsible for these murders, not all of them end up convicted in criminal court.
Although primary attention is turned to the criminal justice system in the aftermath of a murder, there is another course the family of a murdered person can take in an effort to obtain some level of justice. In other words, if a member of your family has been murdered, you may have the ability to pursue what is known as a wrongful death case, according to Cornell University School of Law.
Wrongful Death Defined
A wrongful death claim is a civil action brought by certain individuals to recover compensation from a party responsible for the death of a family member. A wrongful death claim or lawsuit can be pursued against an individual that negligently, recklessly, or intentionally caused the death of a family member. In other words, a wrongful death cause of action can be pursued when a family member has been murdered.
Although this article discussed a wrongful death case pursued because of a murder, an intentional act is not required for this type of legal action. A wrongful death case can be brought by family members when negligence caused a death. Medical malpractice is an example of a wrongful death case oftentimes based on negligence.
A wrongful death case can also be pursued when reckless conduct is involved. For example, a surviving family member could bring a wrongful death lawsuit based on recklessness in a situation involving a drunk driver.
The Statute of Limitations in a Wrongful Death Case
Each state in the United States has a law on the books called the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations establishes a specific timeframe in which a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed in court. The failure to meet this deadline likely precludes a surviving family member from obtaining even some sense of justice through a civil lawsuit because of the murder of a loved one.
The timeframe varies from one state to another. A two-year statute of limitations is relatively common. If you are considering pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit, you must make absolutely certain you know what the timeframe is to file a lawsuit in your case.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Case
Each state maintains its own laws regarding who can pursue a wrongful death case. These laws vary from one jurisdiction to another as to which family members are able to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit.
Generally speaking, a person who can bring a wrongful death lawsuit when a beloved family member is murdered include:
Some states permit other family members the ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit. These can include a sibling or even other extended family members. These family members oftentimes are permitting to pursue a wrongful death claim if there is no surviving spouse, child, or parent.
Typically, state law permits family members who have the legal ability to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit to do so either together or individually. In other words, one lawsuit can be filed, or individual cases can be pursued in court.
A few states require the personal representative of the estate of a murdered individual to pursue a wrongful death claim on behalf of a family member or family members of a murder victim. Many states allow the personal representative of an estate to pursue a wrongful death action if individual family members do not do so on their own initiative within a specific time period.
There has also been an active growing number of states to expand the ability of a significant other beyond a spouse to bring a wrongful death case, according to the American Bar Association. Individuals in same-sex marriages can pursue wrongful death claims in the same manner as can individuals in opposite-sex marriages.
Compensation in a Wrongful Death Case
The specific facts and circumstances, coupled with the legal relationship between the murdered individual and surviving family member, governs the nature and extent of compensation potentially awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit. With that said, the types of losses for which compensation typically is sought in a wrongful death lawsuit arising from a murder include lost companionship, lost income or support, and lost consortium. The lost consortium is the loss of companionship that existed between a husband and wife before one of the spouses was murdered.
Other types of losses for which compensation is awarded in a wrongful death case arising from a murder include medical bills as well as funeral and burial expenses. A family member may also be able to obtain compensation for mental anguish and emotional distress arising from the murder of a family member.
A wrongful death lawsuit pursued because a family member was murdered very well could lend itself to an additional claim for punitive or exemplary damages. Punitive or exemplary damages represent additional financial compensation awarded because of the particularly egregious conduct of a person in causing the death of another. Punitive or exemplary damages are designed to not only provide additional money for a surviving family member but to punish the individual for causing the death of the family member in the first instance.
Collecting a judgment awarded in a wrongful death case arising from a murder can be highly challenging. Oftentimes, a person who murders another lacks assets which can be utilized to satisfy a judgment in a wrongful death case connected with a murder.
Insurance Coverage in a Wrongful Death Case
When a person pursues a wrongful death case arising out of negligence and a car accident, insurance oftentimes is available to cover a settlement or judgment in the case. When a wrongful death case is pursued because of a murder, insurance availability may prove to be an issue.
Even if the murder has some type of insurance that would kick in if negligence was alleged, that type of policy very well may exclude coverage for an intentional act like murder. With this in mind, obtaining money from a judgment in a wrongful death case arising from murder is likely to require a sharp focus on any assets the person who killed family members possesses.
Other Possible Responsible Parties
The person who killed a family member may not be the only party that can be held responsible in a wrongful death case associated with an allegation of murder. For example, if the murder occurred in some sort of building open to the public, the owner of the structure or a business operating in it might be a responsible party as well.
A business enterprise has a legal duty to keep its premises reasonably safe. This includes providing appropriate security. If a demonstration can be made that a business failed to maintain proper security at the premises, at that lack of proper security contributed to the death of your family member, you may be in a position to include the business as a defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit.
A Criminal Case and a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
A person you suspect of killing a member of your family need not be convicted in a criminal case in order for you to pursue a wrongful death civil action. Indeed, an individual you reasonably believe murdered a member of your family need not even be charged with a crime in order for you to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. As is discussed in a moment, these two types of judicial matters depend upon what are known as different standards of proof or burdens of proof.
Judicial Standards in Criminal and Civil Cases
If you are like most people, you have heard the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the legal standard that is used in a criminal trial, including in a murder case. The reality is that this is a high standard to meet. Pursuant to the beyond a reasonable doubt, in order for a person to be found guilty of murder, there cannot be some other reasonable alternative to explain the death of the victim.
The legal standard used in a civil lawsuit is not as difficult to meet as beyond a reasonable doubt. The legal standard a plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit is the preponderance of the evidence. In other words, the contention of the plaintiff must be more likely than not to be true. The standard has also been described as 51 percent of the evidence points in favor of the plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit. This is known as the burden of proof in a civil trial.
The State of California Versus Orenthal J. Simpson
A murder case involving a world-renowned celebrity helps explain the process of pursuing and collecting a judgment in a wrongful death case arising from the murder of a family member. In 1995, one of the most infamous murder trials in the history of the United States took place in the state of California, a case captioned “State of California Versus Orenthal J. Simpson.” The defendant in the case is better known as O.J. Simpson.
The former football star, actor, a television pitchman was charged with murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and Ron Goldman. The victims were founded brutally stabbed to death outside of Brown-Simpson’s home in the tony Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Despite what many legal experts maintained was overwhelming evidence, late in 1995 the jury empaneled in the O.J. Simpson case found him not guilty of murdering the two victims in the case. Simpson walked free.
At the time of the verdict, a majority of black Americans believed Simpson to be not guilty of the crimes. A majority of white Americans believed the football legend to be guilty. By 2016, a majority of both black and white Americans had concluded that Simpson was guilty as charged.
The criminal trial did not bring the legal action taken against O.J. Simpson to an end when it came to the death of Ron Goldman. In the year following the not guilty verdict, the family of murder victim Ron Goldman commenced a wrongful death lawsuit against O.J. Simpson.
After a trial that lasted a little over three months, the jury in the wrongful death lawsuit brought against Simpson returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the Goldman family. Simpson was ordered to pay the Goldman family $35 million.
Collecting on the judgment has been a challenge for the Goldman family. However, they have been successful in obtaining some money from Simpson to pay towards the wrongful death lawsuit judgment. For example, a few years after the verdict was handed down, an auction was held of some of Simpson’s property to generate cash to pay towards the lawsuit judgment. The property included Simpson’s Heisman Trophy. The auction netted about $500,000 for the Goldman family.
Legal Representation in a Wrongful Death Case
If you have lost a family member who was murdered, and if you have questions about your legal rights, you should consult with an experienced wrongful death lawyer. An attorney will arrange an initial consultation with you.
During this preliminary meeting with legal counsel, you will be able to obtain an evaluation of your case. This will include a discussion of potential compensation which might be available to you in your case. You will have the chance to ask any questions you might have about your situation. Typically, a wrongful death lawyer does not charge a fee for an initial consultation with a person seeking representation in this type of case.
In the final analysis, there is no way to ever completely achieve justice when a loved one has been murdered. Money can never fully compensate you for your tremendous loss. With that understood, there are situations in which you can obtain some semblance of justice in the civil court system, even if the criminal justice system may not meet up to your expectations.