People often think of wrongful death lawsuits as legal actions against people or entities whose negligence or reckless actions caused the death of a loved one. Maybe a doctor’s malpractice or a faulty amusement park ride caused someone’s fatal injury, for example. Drunk drivers are often taken to civil court for wrongful death claims as well.
However, wrongful death lawsuits can also be brought by family members against someone whom they believe murdered a loved one. Although the alleged killer would likely be charged and tried in criminal court, criminal trials don’t always provide the outcome and justice sought by families. They sometimes turn to civil lawsuits to seek some sense of justice — even if it means only being able to make the defendant pay monetarily.
Probably the most famous example of this is the O.J. Simpson case. Although he was found not guilty of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in his criminal trial in 1995, Ron Goldman’s family filed a wrongful death suit against him, as did Nicole Brown Simpson’s parents (on behalf of her two children).
The families prevailed in civil court, and Simpson was ordered to pay a substantial amount of money. Collecting it, however, turned out to be a challenge.
The burden of proof in a wrongful death case isn’t as high as in a criminal case. Plaintiffs need only show a “preponderance of the evidence” the defendant’s guilt. In a criminal case, of course, prosecutors need to show proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The amount of damages sought in a wrongful death case can include economic damages (like medical bills, burial costs and loss of income). Surviving family members can also ask for damages for things like loss of companionship, mental anguish and other noneconomic harm. Cases of alleged murder can also lend themselves to what are called punitive or exemplary damages based on the egregiousness of the act.
Surviving family members may file a wrongful death claim not so much for the money, but — as noted — to feel like they’ve gotten some justice for their loved one. Having a court — even a civil court — determine that the defendant indeed committed the crime can help grieving families.