Can I File a Wrongful Death Claim Against the Person Who Murdered My Loved One?
Losing a loved one because of someone else’s criminal act is one of the most emotionally devastating things that can happen to a family. While the criminal justice system can punish the responsible person, that does not compensate you or your family for your loss. This is why Connecticut law permits a separate, civil cause of action known as wrongful death.
Court Rejects Defendant’s Belated Answer in Wrongful Death Case
A wrongful death lawsuit is similar to a personal injury claim, except that the injuries resulted in the victim’s death. Not all wrongful death cases involve criminal activity. Someone who negligently causes a fatal car accident may be sued for wrongful death even if he or she is not criminally liable for DUI or a similar offense.
But if the victim died as the result of a criminal act, the estate or family has the right to pursue a wrongful death claim against the criminal, even if he or she has already been tried and convicted in criminal court. Here is a recent Connecticut case on this point. In 2009, the defendant fatally stabbed the victim during a bar fight in New Haven County. In August 2011, a jury found the defendant guilty of murder. He is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence.
In 2010, while the murder case was still pending, the executor of the victim’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant and the bar where the fatal stabbing occurred. The defendant never responded to the civil lawsuit. The court entered a default for the plaintiff, and three years later, in 2014, the executor requested a hearing to determine damages.
It was only then the defendant, acting without an attorney, filed a motion to set aside the default. The judge denied it and a subsequent motion to dismiss, which the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court of Connecticut. In May of this year, the Appellate Court rejected the appeal, returning the case to the trial court for the damages hearing.
Among other grounds, the defendant claimed the wrongful death lawsuit constituted “double jeopardy” and would force him to incriminate himself, in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. The Appellate Court found no merit in those arguments. “Double jeopardy” means the government cannot criminally try a defendant a second time for the same crime following an acquittal. It does not bar a separate civil lawsuit, such as a wrongful death claim, based on the same set of facts.
As for self-incrimination, while a person cannot be forced to answer certain questions in a wrongful death case – e.g., “Did you cause the victim’s death?” – that does not mean he or she can simply ignore the lawsuit altogether, as the defendant here did for more than three years. A wrongful death defendant can still file an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint while preserving his or her right against self-incrimination.
Do You Need Help from a Connecticut Wrongful Death Attorney?
Most wrongful death cases are not quite this straightforward. Indeed, they are often highly contested and require the assistance of a skilled New London-Waterford, Connecticut, wrongful death attorney who understands the law in this area.
Contact Polito & Harrington LLC today if you have lost a loved one because of reckless or criminal conduct and would like to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys right away.