Our country has been shocked by the exposure of police violence and rampant abuses of power by authority figures toward some of our society’s most vulnerable members. Cases like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson or the brutal killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore incited riots in their respective cities. This begs the question: What can family members do if they’ve lost a loved one to this type of incident? The legal answer is a wrongful death lawsuit.

What Exactly is a Wrongful Death?

Taking someone to court for a wrongful death is a way to get financial compensation for a loss, and to hold someone responsible for a death separately from a criminal case. That means that someone could be tried in a criminal case, and then also held liable for a wrongful death in a civil suit. In practice wrongful death suits are used when a criminal case is unlikely to succeed because it’s difficult to assign blame to a specific person. Though we usually know who the perpetrators are in cases of police violence, the responsibility of their actions usually rests with their employer, the government. Because of this the actual perpetrators are often never brought to trial, leaving the families of the victims with no option except to file a civil suit to try to get justice. Here are a few great examples…

California’s Largest Ever Wrongful Death Settlement

Martin Harrison was killed in 2010 by deputies in the Santa Rita jail. Harrison was suffering from extreme alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and was delirious and hallucinating. In response, instead of providing him with alcohol withdrawal protocols, they beat him to death. Harrison’s 4 children won a wrongful death suit for 8.3 million dollars against the correctional facility. The prison corporation was held responsible for the violence and was given a strong incentive to change the behavior of its employees. This case also had a major impact on correctional medicine because the nurse responsible for administering medical care was unqualified for her position, as were many people in similar positions around the country.

New York Bathroom Killing

Ramarley Graham was unarmed and shot to death in his own bathroom by a police officer in the Bronx 2012. The officer had chased Graham, who was fleeing from him, because he suspected him of being involved in a drug deal. Several of the boy’s family members were detained after the killing who later sued for emotional damages and wrongful death. The officer was never charged with a crime and wasn’t removed from the force, however the family did manage to hold the institution legally responsible for the attack through their wrongful death suit.

Denver Strangling

Marvin Booker was a street preacher in Denver who was put into a “sleeper hold” after being tased by deputies. The city tried to blame his death on his “poor health”, so the family sued for punitive damages, funeral costs, attorney’s fees, and loss of enjoyment of life. The jury awarded the family a record 4.6 million dollars. The family’s attorney made a statement saying that “This verdict should reverberate across the country. This is a signal that the people of Denver aren’t going to put up with it anymore.” Wrongful death cases are often used like this to attempt to pressure government institutions to change their policies and their behavior in the long term.

Botched Compton Arrest

Deputies were called to respond to a misdemeanor assault by Darren Burley in Compton. In the resulting altercation, Burley was beaten and allegedly choked until he died. Even though Burley was considered partly responsible for the altercation, his wife and five children were awarded 8 million dollars in damages. The court found that malicious force was used on Burley as a result of racial discrimination. This case worked to compensate the family for some of their loss, and to bring awareness to an issue that’s been plaguing the country for a long time and that is now beginning to be seriously discussed and addressed.

As we can see, wrongful death cases serve a variety of uses; first to address the personal loss of the bereaved, and then to drive greater changes to discourage similar incidents in the future.

What To Do…

If you believe that your family member or friend has been a victim of wrongful death, then please call us at 1-800-INJURED and let us put you in contact with a specialized wrongful death attorney to get you the compensation you deserve.


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