A wrongful death lawsuit is designed to compensate the surviving family members of a homicide victim. Under Georgia law, a spouse may file a wrongful death claim, and if the victim had no spouse, that right falls to the victim’s children. A wrongful death claim exists separate and apart from any lawsuit that may be filed by the victim’s estate—that is, on behalf of the victim.
Felio v. Hyatt
Wrongful death cases are often difficult to bring against government employees, who enjoy a broad degree of immunity for their official acts. But such claims are not impossible. A recent decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta offers a useful illustration.
In 2010, two police officers employed by the City of Lawrenceville, Georgia, responded to domestic disturbance call. The officers arrived at a house and ordered the victim out of bed so he could be questioned. When the victim refused to answer questions, the officers decided to arrest him. When the victim resisted arrest, one of the officer shocked the victim with a taser “approximately nine times.” According to the officers, they victim continued to struggle with the victim even after he was on the floor. At one point, one of the officers shot and killed the victim.
The victim’s spouse and the police officers disagreed as to the exact sequence of events. The officers testified that lethal force was necessary because the victim had attempted to grab one of the officer’s weapons during the struggle. But the spouse said “the struggle was over” before the officer killed her husband. She claims her husband had surrendered and was lying on the floor. Another relative present in the house similarly said the victim was “lying on the floor” and not struggling with either of the officers.
The spouse subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the two officers and the City of Lawrenceville. A federal judge, however, granted summary judgment to all defendants. But on appeal, the 11th Circuit reversed summary judgment solely with respect to the officer who shot and killed the victim.
Under Georgia law, the appeals court explained, a police officer is not personally liable for any action taken while on-duty unless there is evidence he “acted with actual malice or actual intent to cause injury.” This is a “demanding standard,” the court noted. The plaintiff must prove the officer had a “deliberate intention to do a wrongful act.” And according to the Georgia Supreme Court, a police officer who shoots a person “intentionally and without justification” meets this standard.
The 11th Circuit did not rule one way or the other on the merits of the spouse’s wrongful death claim. Rather, the court said that if a jury believes her account of her husband’s death, it could find the officer’s actions rose to the level of “actual malice or actual intent to cause injury,” and he would not be shielded from liability. Accordingly, the 11th Circuit returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings against the officer.