In the mid-1990s, O.J. Simpson was famously found not guilty for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Not long after, the family of the deceased sued Mr. Simpson and won millions. Many wondered how this was possible if he had already been acquitted.
The answer lies in the difference between civil and criminal justice. Criminal justice exists to punish people for crimes against society. If you are found guilty of breaking the law, you must pay your debt to society through fines, community service, incarceration, and so on.
Civil justice exists to provide financial compensation when someone is harmed by another’s negligence. If you were hurt by a careless driver, injured by a poorly made product, harmed by a mismanaged business, etc., you may be entitled to damages for your troubles.
Because of this separation in the justice system, it is possible to sue someone who already stood criminal trial. In the case of a murder, the injured party has passed, so how can you receive compensation in their absence? If you believe a loved one was intentionally killed, it is possible to sue the alleged murderer in a wrongful death lawsuit.
What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Wrongful death is a type of personal injury lawsuit where the injured party did not survive. In the event of a murder, wrongful death suits are typically based on a “strict liability.” If the killing was most likely intentional, the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) can receive damages.
In a civil lawsuit, “most likely” are keywords. Criminal prosecution is based on proving someone’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In O.J. Simpson’s case, the defense did an excellent job of creating doubt. They questioned the motives of the police, and they scrutinized the murder weapons and clothing allegedly worn during the killing. To this day, there are reasons to doubt that Simpson committed the murder, which is why he was found not guilty.
Civil justice is based on a “preponderance of evidence.” Essentially, it is more likely that the defendant is at fault than not. Therefore, a court must be only 51% certain of the defendant’s liability to rule in favor of the plaintiff.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit?
Technically, anyone who owns anything has an estate. Your estate is simply the totality of your property. After you die, your belongings must be distributed to someone else. If a person has no family or will, their property usually goes to the state. When someone leaves a will behind, their estate goes to the named beneficiaries. If they have family but no will, their estate falls into intestate succession, where the state distributes the assets to the surviving family.
Whichever way an estate is distributed, there must be someone to do that job. In New York, that person is the estate’s personal representative, or PR. This person can be named in a will or appointed by a court. New York law allows only the personal representative of the estate to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Who Benefits from a Wrongful Death Suit?
Only the close relatives of the deceased can receive compensation. This could include parents, children, and siblings. Distant relatives – cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. – could also be compensated, but only if they are specifically named in the estate. Even in those situations, their portion will be smaller than that of the immediate family.
If you want to file such a lawsuit on behalf of a murdered loved one, you must appeal to the PR. This may not be an easy task, as they could be incapable of benefitting from the suit. The lawsuit could be only more work for them. As part of your plea, you may need to promise them a portion of the damages should you win. They could also draw an agreement, asking for a specific fee to initiate and follow through with the trial.
PRs can be close relatives if they were named in the will. However, if they win the case, they will still share damages with other close, surviving relatives.
What Kind of Damages Can You Receive?
In a civil case, financial compensation comes in the form of “damages.” Damages are meant to pay you back for your trouble. A wrongful death case has more kinds of damages than a standard personal injury case.
In a New York Wrongful Death Case, You Can Be Compensated For:
Anything related to a funeral – the ceremony, burial, casket, cremation, headstone, etc. – can be paid back if you win the case.
Loss of Income
Tragically, your loved one was unnecessarily killed. The emotional pain of this loss may last a lifetime. Pragmatically, their absence can have a direct, financial impact on you. Imagine you are an elderly parent with no savings, supported by your successful son. After his death, you may be unable to support yourself. A wrongful death case could help compensate you for this loss of income.
Courts may also consider a loss of future income when awarding damages. Imagine this supportive son was on the verge of a big promotion, or maybe they were steps away from selling their script to Hollywood. This potential influx of money could have had a direct benefit to the parent they support, a benefit that is now gone.
Perhaps the victim did not die immediately. They may have been rushed to the hospital, only to pass from their injuries later. Even though they are gone, there are still medical expenses to cover. A wrongful death suit can grant such financial coverage to the bereaved.
Pain and Suffering
In a personal injury case, plaintiffs often ask for extra damages to cover their pain and suffering. Generally, these damages represent the time it took to recover from an injury. In a wrongful death case, pain and suffering represents the mental distress of your loss, compounded by the fact that your loved one was murdered. Nothing will ever repair the wound created by their absence, but pain and suffering damages can help ease the transition to a life without them.
Loss of Support
The people in our lives, especially close family members, provide more than just companionship. We come to rely on one another in tangible, practical ways. Imagine a married couple that distributes their job roles equally. One does the cleaning while the other manages the children. One runs the family business, and the other manages the finances. A sudden loss can throw this family into chaos. The surviving spouse now has double the workload along with their grief. As part of the lawsuit, you can be compensated for this loss of support, helping you restructure your life.
A loss of support claim also applies to parenting. When one parent is killed, the other is left to fill the void, playing the role of both parents.
“Punitive” is a synonym for “punishing.” In a personal injury case, the defendant is sometimes guilty of something so egregious, the court orders them to pay more money just to punish them. These are punitive damages. In a wrongful death case involving murder, it can be easy to convince the court that this harmful, malicious act warrants extra, punitive damages.
What if the Murderer Was Already Convicted?
A justified lawsuit can be filed against anyone at any time. It doesn’t matter if the killer stood trial, was convicted, or was set free.
Suing a convicted criminal does, however, present many challenges. First, they can be difficult to locate, as prisoners are often moved between facilities. Next, the correctional facility must grant them temporary release to stand trial. This is a long, rigorous process. If the prisoner is moved before granted release, you must start the process over. Finally, convicted criminals are not known for being independently wealthy. While it may be possible to sue, it may not be possible to receive any money from them. They are effectively “litigation proof,” having no means to pay court-ordered compensation.
Speaking with a Lawyer
If someone you love was the victim of a murder, speak with an attorney. They can review the facts of your case and help you decide how to proceed. If a wrongful death lawsuit is appropriate, they can begin building your case right away. If not, they will know of other actions you can take to get the financial justice you deserve.
If you need help with a wrongful death lawsuit, contact our office today for a free consultation. Our number is (607) 228-8404, and you can reach us online.