Much of the nation was outraged at the July 13 verdict in the George Zimmerman case. Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer, followed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin against police instructions and may have provoked the scuffle that ultimately cost Martin his life. Zimmerman, who killed the unarmed teenager with a concealed pistol, was acquitted of criminal charges and is now free.
However, that doesn’t mean the Martin family is devoid of options.
Zimmerman’s legal team claimed that he acted in self-defense – that once the scuffle had been started, however it may have begun, Zimmerman was afraid for his life and had to use force to protect himself. While that was enough for a jury to clear him of any potential prison time, it may not excuse him for legal liability for what he did.
In civil court, the burden of evidence is much less than in a criminal court. The victim of an attack – or the family of a victim, in the case of a murder – can sue the aggressor for damages potentially including medical costs, funeral costs, lost wages, emotional pain and suffering for the loss of a child.
The law doesn’t pretend that money awarded in a lawsuit can replace a lost life. Instead, this form of monetary compensation is designed to serve two purposes: to help the victim’s family stay afloat and to make the person responsible pay for what they’ve done.
Crucially, in a civil case, the victims can prevail even if the aggressor didn’t intend violence: if Martin’s death could have been prevented by more responsible choices on Zimmerman’s part, then Zimmerman may have to pay for his negligence.
And the Martin family has already had a victory in one case. Separately, they sued the homeowners’ association of the community where Trayvon was killed, winning a settlement of at least $1 million. In that case, the homeowners’ association chose to settle out of court rather than fighting it; there’s no telling whether Zimmerman, if sued directly, would do the same.
One thing is for sure, however: If a wrongful death suit were brought against Zimmerman on grounds of negligence, Zimmerman would have a hard time winning, even after being acquitted of murder. In his criminal trial, a jury was unable to conclude that Zimmerman intentionally started the fight or meant to kill Martin. But in a civil suit, there is no jury – a judge alone gets to decide whether Zimmerman made an unreasonable choice to pursue Martin.
Given that Zimmerman was a non-professional community watch volunteer, that he had no apparent grounds for suspecting Martin of any crime, and that he followed the teen even after a police dispatcher asked him not to, calling his decision “reasonable” might be a stretch.