WASHINGTON, July 14, 2013 — Yesterday, a Florida jury concluded that George Zimmerman was not guilty of any criminal offense in connection with the death of Trayvon Martin. A wrongful death civil lawsuit against Zimmerman however, might provide a finding that Zimmerman was responsible.
The purpose of filing a civil lawsuit in this case will not be about money. It is unlikely that a successful civil verdict against Zimmerman would result in the Martine family collecting any money, despite any amount a jury would award as compensation for their loss.
A civil lawsuit verdict however, might help bring closure to the Martin family and validate their beliefs about what happened to their son.
The evidence in the criminal trial was not enough to find Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, because the jurors had to be, and were not, all but positive Zimmerman committed either second-degree murder or manslaughter. Jurors had to reach this verdict unanimously.
The standard of proof in a civil trial is lower, such that evidence only has to meet a “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This standard has been described as requiring only just a bit more than fifty percent (50.1) probability that Zimmerman was responsible for Martin’s death. In other words, evidence must prove that the thing in question was “more likely than not.”
There are additional reasons that securing a Plaintiff’s verdict in a civil trial is more likely than securing a Guilty verdict in a criminal case. Zimmerman can be required to testify during the civil trial. He was not required to do so in the criminal trial, and jurors were not allowed to hold his decision to remain silent against him.
In a civil trial, the “discovery” process will require Zimmerman to give testimony at a deposition. If he fails to do so, he would forfeit his right to offer any “defense” and a judge would order a verdict on legal grounds before any trial begins.
Similarly, if Zimmerman is called to the stand during his civil trial, he must testify, or again, he would forfeit his right to offer any “defense.” In this instance a judge would order the verdict on legal grounds without the matter ever being presented to the jury.
Next, assuming Zimmerman did testify during the trial, he would be subject to cross-examination, where his credibility will be tested.
Finally, while a civil jury must unanimously agree on their finding of responsibility, often jurors in civil cases compromise. Civil jurors who are “on the fence” in deciding often compromise and agree to render a verdict in favor of a Plaintiff in exchange for other jurors with stronger convictions agreeing to reduce the monetary damage award.
In a criminal trial, jurors cannot compromise on the result of their verdict. They must find the Defendant Guilty or Not Guilty. In most jurisdictions if a jury decides a Defendant is guilty, they are then tasked with recommending a sentence. It is the trial judge however who ultimately decides and imposes the sentence.
A civil verdict finding responsibility for a death is much easier to obtain because it is much easier to compromise over money than over being responsible for sending someone to prison for life.
A successful civil trial following a criminal not guilty verdict has been seen in another high profile case: that of O.J. Simpson. Following OJ’s acquittal of the criminal murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in 1994, the families of these victims sued Simpson in civil court, and in 1997, a civil court jury, applying the lesser standard of proof, found Simpson liable for the killings.
There are additional strategies that are available in a civil forum that were not in the criminal trial. These strategies make possible a secondary goal of obtaining compensation here, upon a jury finding that Zimmerman was responsible for Martin’s death.
The Martin family attorney might sue both the neighbor watch organization and the neighborhood. One or both of these might be insured. Suing them, however, ultimately, would not be about the money. Suing them furthers the introduction of additional evidence.
By naming the neighborhood watch organization and the neighborhood as Defendants in a civil case, claims of negligent hiring and negligent supervision would be made. The theory of these claims is that Zimmerman was an inappropriate candidate to be a neighborhood watchman and that he should not have been allowed to be a watchman, or that if his background was not such to render him unacceptable as a watchman, that the organizations failed to properly supervise him.
Evidence that would support or defeat these claims would then be admissible, and would allow a civil jury to consider Zimmerman’s history.
We saw on television last night someone who described Zimmerman as a fantastic watchman, and that crime in the neighborhood decreased once he began his post. Nonetheless, there was other evidence the criminal jury did not hear (because that evidence was not relevant to what happened during the encounter) that a civil jury would have and which might further a finding of civil responsibility.
If the Martin family’s attorney can paint Zimmerman as a ‘bad guy” prior to the encounter, it could assist a jury in finding against him even if there is no finding against the organizations. By suing the neighborhood watch group and the neighborhood, this evidence would be admissible.
The Martin family, in the early days after Trayvon’s death, wanted an arrest made so, they said, a fair trial could be had. They did not ask for a conviction, just a fair trial. The trial was fair. Justice may or many not have been delivered.
Only one person knows what happened. A jury found that there was not enough evidence for a criminal conviction. If a civil action is filed, we may learn more.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics. Paul is the featured legal analyst on the Washington Times Radio, in Washington, D.C., on the Andy Parks show, the featured legal analyst for America’s Radio News Network, heard in 165 markets nationwide, and he is a columnist on the Washington Times Communities.
His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.
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