Even if Florida prosecutors never bring criminal charges against George Zimmerman, can Trayvon Martin's family sue Zimmerman in civil court?
This is the latest question being asked of Trayvon's parents, even though they appear to be focused on finding criminal justice for their son. Nonetheless, it's an important one -- and one this blogger would ordinarily answer with a resounding "yes."
However, Florida law complicates the issue, and may just prevent such a suit.
Normally, individuals are free to bring negligence or wrongful death suits even when an alleged criminal is never convicted. The O.J. Simpson case is a good example. He was acquitted of all criminal charges, but a civil trial ended in a $46 million verdict.
Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law -- the same law that could prevent criminal charges from being filed against Zimmerman -- may prevent a civil lawsuit. Individuals who use deadly force in self-defense are immune from both criminal and civil liability under the law.
This is likely why, on Monday, attorney Ben Crump told the Orlando Sentinel that Trayvon's family has no plans to sue Zimmerman in civil court. At least not yet. If the grand jury indicts Zimmerman and charges are filed, a judge will decide whether the self-defense law applies. If he decides it does, the criminal charges will be dropped and the family won't be able to sue Zimmerman.
It could be months before the issue of self-defense goes before a judge, which means it will likely be months before Trayvon's parents know whether they can sue Zimmerman.
- Many questions in shooting of Trayvon Martin (Associated Press)
- Wrongful Death Overview (FindLaw)
- Jackson Wrongful Death Suit: Criminal and Civil Liability for Homicides? (Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog)