Last Tuesday, a Grand Jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Ferguson, Missouri resident Michael Brown. The response to the decision has widely varied. Some Ferguson residents protested and rioted in the streets after the decision was announced. The St. Louis County Prosecutor, Robert McCulloch vigorously defended the outcome in his press conference, blaming the media for presenting misinformation to the public. In light of the decision, any hope Michael Brown’s family and Ferguson residents had of seeing criminal charges brought against Officer Darren Wilson has been extinguished at the state level. Despite the Grand Jury’s ruling, however, the Browns may still be able to take legal action in the form of a lawsuit.
Despite the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson, the family of Michael Brown may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Ferguson and the police department. The failure to criminally prosecute or convict a party doesn’t absolve them of civil liability. The OJ Simpson case is a prime example of a victim’s family receiving compensation in a wrongful death lawsuit despite the absolution of guilt in criminal court. Simpson was acquitted in the murders of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman but there was a civil jury verdict over $30 million in damages to the Goldmans and Browns after being found liable for their deaths in a lawsuit. To be able to successfully obtain compensation for Michael Brown’s death, his family would have to prove that based on his actions, Officer Wilson was legally liable under standards of proof applicable to Missouri’s civil, not criminal, justice system.
While the laws in Missouri may differ, under New York and/or federal law, the Browns may be able to obtain monetary compensation if it could be proven Officer Wilson did any of the following:
- While acting under color of state law, engaged in conduct that constituted a custom, usage, practice, procedure or rule of the respective municipality/authority, which is forbidden by the Constitution of the United States
- Officer Wilson forewent customs, policies, usages, practices, procedures and rules of the municipality, which constituted deliberate indifference to the safety, well-being and constitutional rights of Michael Brown
- Officer Wilson’s disregard for the customs, policies, usages, practices, procedures and rules of the municipality were the direct and proximate cause of Michael Brown’s death
- Officer Wilson’s disregard for the customs, policies, usages, practices, procedures and rules of the municipality were the moving force that led to the death of Michael Brown
If a family in New York State, with circumstances similar to the Michael Brown case, were able to prove the aforementioned violations occurred, they would have a reasonable chance of recouping compensation for wrongful death. The amount of compensation to which a family would be entitled would depend on many factors, including but not limited to the degree of pain and suffering the decedent endured prior to his death and any economic loss caused by his death, such as lost income to the family. In addition, in the event of the wrongful death of an individual with children, economic loss can include the value of the loss of parental guidance that the children suffer as a result of the wrongful death of a parent.
In sum, in the instance of the death of a loved one, it is important to understand the distinction between one’s rights in a civil case, as opposed to the function of a state or federal government in the prosecution of a criminal matter.