In general, anytime an individual is killed because of someone’s negligence or deliberate acts of malice, the decedent’s surviving family members are entitled to file a wrongful death claim to recover damages. This also applies to police officers. Damages in a wrongful death claim are meant to compensate surviving family members for the loss of tangible and intangible forms of support they reasonably should have expected to receive had the victim not lost his or her life.
Wrongful death claims against the police are often fought tooth and tail, yet sometimes are settled quickly in order to avoid bad publicity. Wrongful death claims will usually be filed against the city where the police department that was responsible for the death is located.
Some cities will attempt to invoke immunity from legal action. This means that if an officer who killed someone was using appropriate techniques he or she may be immune to a wrongful death claim. Please consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney to determine whether or not you are entitled to file a wrongful death claim against a specific police department.
State Or Federal
A wrongful death claim may be filed either on the state or federal level, or both, against an officer who acted with negligence or malice. It depends on the circumstances. The claim can also be brought at the federal level if it can be proven that an aggrieved individual’s civil rights were violated.
Wrongful Death Claims In Federal Court
According to Federal law (42 U.S.C. § 1983), any peace officers who subject a U.S. resident to "the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" can be held liable for any losses caused.
This means that police officers are allowed to use force that is appropriate to the circumstances of a specific moment. Determining what is appropriate force is challenging. In other words, did a police officer respond appropriately given a perceived threat, or did he or she use excessive force given the circumstances?
A classic example would be of a child who is holding a toy gun that looks very real. Obviously, that toy gun is not a threat to anyone. But an officer may think it’s a real gun and may react by shooting the child, which could be a justified act of self-defense.
Damages after a wrongful death claim involving the police will vary. For example, according to the Washington Post, settlements varied anywhere from $7,500 to $8.5 million. The median was reported as $1.2 million. This news report further stated that families collected greater damages by foregoing a trial and settling. Finally, very few cases have ever been brought against individual police officers.