The Wrongful Death Case Against George Zimmerman

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, over the weekend a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the criminal trial over the death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. (Learn more about the criminal case here.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean Zimmerman has seen his last courtroom in connection with the incident. The NAACP is calling for a civil rights probe into the case, and Martin’s family could very well file a wrongful death lawsuit against Zimmerman in civil court.

As for the wrongful death angle, probably the most famous parallel here is the O.J. Simpson case. In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, but was later placed on the financial hook for over $33 million in civil liability after the victims’ families brought a successful wrongful death lawsuit against him.

So, what might a wrongful death lawsuit against George Zimmerman look like? Under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, a “personal representative” could go to court and file the civil suit on behalf of one or both of Trayvon Martin’s parents, as “survivors” of the deceased. Assuming Martin had no will and did not appoint a personal representative, Martin’s parents would likely qualify as “personal representatives” of his estate. So, the parents here could end up both 1) bringing the lawsuit, and 2) also being named as “survivors” who are entitled to compensation.

In wrongful death cases, “survivors” in effect “stand in the shoes” of the deceased when a wrongful act would have entitled the deceased person (Martin) to file a lawsuit and recover damages if death had not resulted from the defendant’s (Zimmerman’s) actions. Keep in mind here that Martin’s parents would not need to prove that Zimmerman committed a crime; it would be enough to show that Zimmerman’s carelessness or negligence resulted in Martin’s death.

There are restrictions on the kinds of personal injury damages that Martin’s parents could recover. They could get compensation for Martin’s pain and suffering in connection with his injuries and death. They could also recover the present value of “future loss of support and services” from the date of Martin’s death through a period of time that considers the life expectancies of Martin and his parents. Finally, reimbursement of funeral expenses is also an option under Florida law. (You can view the complete text of Florida’s Wrongful Death Act starting at Florida Statutes Title XLV section 768.16.)

Besides liability for money damages as a remedy (versus a penalty of incarceration for prosecution), the key difference between the criminal trial and any wrongful death civil proceeding is the “standard of proof.” The prosecutors needed to establish that Zimmerman was guilty of homicide (either second-degree murder or the lesser-included charge of manslaughter) “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Obviously, the jury found that the state’s prosecutors fell short of meeting this burden.

But in civil court, lawyers for Martin’s family would only need to prove that it is more likely than not that a wrongful act by Zimmerman caused Martin’s death. The legalese version of this standard is “by a preponderance of the evidence.” So, it’s a much lower bar that needs to be met in a civil case when it comes to proving liability.