Can Family Members of Crime Victims Bring Wrongful Death Claims?

At the time that former NFL star Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in April 2017, a wrongful death claim was proceeding against him by the family of Odin Lloyd, who Hernandez was found guilty of murdering in 2013, and it appears the wrongful death claim will proceed against Hernandez’ estate. The case brings to mind another tragic wrongful death suit against an NFL star nearly two decades ago in which O.J. Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million to the estates of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson (and for whose deaths Simpson was famously found not guilty). These stories bring up questions of when families of crime victims can bring wrongful death claims and what relation a guilty or not guilty finding will have in connection with a wrongful death claim.

A Death Caused By a Criminal Act Can Be the Basis of a Wrongful Death Claim

We often think of wrongful death claims being brought in connection with fatal accidents, but a family can bring a wrongful death claim against a party whenever it was negligent, reckless, or intentional in causing another person’s death. For that reason, if a person died as a result of a criminal act, unintentional or intentional, such as a murder, robbery, or even a DUI, that person’s family can bring a wrongful death claim against the perpetrator of the crime.

The family can thus seek to recover their financial and emotional losses in connection with the death (including the financial support the deceased would have provided over a lifetime) as well as pain and suffering endured by the deceased and even punitive damages ($25 million of the Simpson award was for punitive damages).

In many cases, however, the person who committed the crime will not have sufficient assets to satisfy the full losses suffered by family members, making a wrongful death case challenging, but other parties besides the criminal actor may also be liable, such as that person’s employer or the owner of the property on which the crime occurred.

A Not Guilty Finding Does Not Mean No Wrongful Death Liability

While a guilty finding in a criminal trial can act as strong evidence of fault in a wrongful death suit, the opposite is not exactly true, and a family can pursue a wrongful death claim against a person even where no charges were brought or there was a not guilty finding. This was indeed the case in the O.J. Simpson case.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that the level of proof that must be shown in a civil wrongful death case (a “preponderance of evidence” – or in other words, more likely than not) is much lower than in a criminal case where there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Juries in criminal trials often have to be unanimous which is not typically the case in civil trials. Finally, prosecutors may not have the resources, skills, or motivation to win a criminal trial, whereas a civil attorney hired by a family may have all three which are necessary to win a wrongful death case.

Work With Experienced Dallas Wrongful Death Attorneys

The Kelley Law Firm PC in Dallas, TX represents the rights of family members of victims killed by the wrongful acts of others. We have successfully recovered numerous 7-figure settlements and verdicts on behalf of our clients, and are passionately committed to obtaining the maximum financial recovery that our clients deserve. Contact us today to schedule a consultation regarding your wrongful death matter.

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