In the aftermath of a fatal shooting, wrongful death lawsuits often follow. How do such lawsuits work, when a victim (and perhaps even the shooter) is dead?
Laws in every state allow for civil wrongful-death lawsuits when a person's death was due to the negligence or deliberate acts of another person or entity. For example, relatives of two victims in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings won $8 million in a wrongful-death suit that alleged negligence by the school.
Recent mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado and at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin may also lead to wrongful death suits. In general, here's what plaintiffs will have to prove:
- A death caused by another's negligence, or with intent to cause harm. After a shooting, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed against the shooter (or his estate, if the shooter is deceased), and other parties believed to be at least partly at fault. Negligence generally requires proof that a person or entity breached a duty of care, which then caused the victim's death. In the Virginia Tech case, for example, jurors found the school was negligent in failing to warn students about a gunman on campus.
- Damages. Most states award damages in wrongful death lawsuits based on the loss of a victim's income or future earnings. This can get complicated, and expert witnesses may be required to determine the proper amount of compensation. A victim's dependents may also factor into the calculation.
- A personal representative for the victim's estate. Because the victim is deceased, there needs to be some way for his or her estate to receive the damage award, and then distribute it to survivors.
Other considerations in shooting-related wrongful death lawsuits include potential caps on damage awards, especially when doctors or state entities are involved, and the time limit for filing such suits, just to name a few. That's why it's wise to consult with an experienced local wrongful death attorney who can advise you on the best way to proceed.