If you've recently suffered the tragic loss of a close family member at the hands of another person, you're likely both angry and heartbroken, and may be wondering whether you have any recourse against your relative's murderer. A wrongful death lawsuit may be one option for you and your family to recover some of the financial (if not the emotional) losses you've suffered. Read on to learn more about the laws governing when you can sue a murderer for wrongful death.
Can you sue for wrongful death even if the person responsible was not convicted of murder?
Whether due to a legal loophole, prosecutor error, lack of evidence, or a sympathetic jury, not all murderers are convicted of the crime. In other cases, the person who killed your relative may be acquitted due to a legal defense (for example, if he or she was acting in self-defense).
However, the standard of proof for criminal matters -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- is much stricter than that of civil cases, like wrongful death. In a wrongful death action, you'll need to show only by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant killed your family member. Some courts have held that a preponderance of the evidence means only "more likely than not" that the person accused was responsible for your relative's death.
This generally means that as long as there is some evidence directly pointing toward the defendant's responsibility for your family member's death (or if a court found that the defendant was responsible for killing your relative, but was justified in doing so), you'll be able to recover a wrongful death judgment.
How will your lawsuit proceed?
To sue for wrongful death, you'll need to consult a homicide lawyer. There are a number of pleading requirements and timelines you'll need to be aware of in order for your case to succeed.
First, your attorney will gather any and all evidence pointing toward the defendant's culpability in this matter. Having this evidence close at hand will help the lawsuit proceed quickly once filed. You and your attorney will have a specific period of time during which you're able to file, called a statute of limitations -- after this time period has passed, you'll be forever prevented from suing the defendant for wrongful death.
Once the case has been filed, both the defendant and your attorney will exchange documents and allow witnesses to be interviewed during the discovery process. The case will then be set for trial, although the defendant may make a settlement offer before then. If you prevail at trial, a judgment will be issued against the defendant and you'll have the power to seize his or her bank accounts or garnish wages until the debt is fully paid.