Apr 30, 2021
Last month, the city of Minneapolis agreed to a $27 million wrongful death settlement with the family of George Floyd. An additional $500,000 will reportedly be paid as part of the settlement to enhance the neighborhood near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue where Floyd died while in police custody. The infamous incident involving former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, made worldwide headlines and sparked an ongoing civil rights movement. Earlier this month, a jury found Chauvin guilty of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the criminal trial.
While the George Floyd case has garnered perhaps more media attention than any other in recent memory, where does the wrongful death settlement rank in terms of overall damages? Furthermore, does increased publicity typically correlate with increased settlements or verdicts in high-profile wrongful death cases? Below we’ll take a look at some of the most famous (or infamous) and widely publicized wrongful death settlements over the last few decades. Additionally, we’ll examine how the Floyd settlement ranks among wrongful death cases involving police.
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◉ State of California v. O.J. Simpson
When considering well-known or highly publicized wrongful death cases, the first that typically comes to mind is the O.J. Simpson case from 1997. After being acquitted on all criminal charges in the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald L. Goldman on October 3, 1995, Simpson’s legal troubles were far from over. The families of the victims filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Simpson in 1996.
Nicole Brown’s estate, represented by her father, Lou Brown, filed what’s known as a survivor suit (or survival action), while Ronald Goldman’s parents, Fred Goldman and Sharon Rufo, brought a wrongful death suit against Simpson. The former is typically brought by the executor of a decedent’s estate, while the latter can be brought by various types of eligible plaintiffs. Examples of wrongful death plaintiffs may include a surviving spouse or domestic partner, child, or individual with a legal interest in the decedent’s property.
Simpson was found liable for both murders in the wrongful death case, with the decision coming in February 1997. The breakdown of the awarded settlement was as follows:
The $33.5 million figure represents one of the largest wrongful death settlements in recent memory. However, it’s important to note that many wrongful death claims, including those involving famous or high-profile figures that receive considerable media attention, often settle for undisclosed sums.
For example, in 2015, the daughter of late actor, Paul Walker, settled a confidential wrongful death claim with Porsche. Walker was killed in 2013 after the vehicle he was riding in (a Porsche Carrera GT) spun out of control, hit a row of trees, and burst into flames. The fatal Los Angeles-area car accident occurred near Rye Canyon Loop and Kelly Johnson Parkway in Valencia.
The terms of the settlement between his daughter, Meadow Walker, and Porsche were never disclosed to the public, leaving the media to speculate on the ultimate figure reached. The same is true for a well-known wrongful death claim against the Pop Warner football program.
After a former player who had reportedly developed a type of brain degeneration known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) committed suicide at age 25, his family filed a 2015 wrongful death claim in Wisconsin federal court seeking $5 million in damages. But the case was ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum.
For an example of another wrongful death claim that made headlines but also reached a disclosed settlement, there’s the case involving talk-show host Nancy Grace.
In 2006, 21-year-old Melinda Duckett appeared on Nancy Grace’s self-titled television program on the CNN Headline News network. Duckett’s son, Trenton, had just gone missing, and Grace, a former prosecutor, was interviewing her regarding the ordeal. Grace accused Duckett, on-air, of hiding something after a reported unwillingness to take a polygraph (lie-detector) test. Duckett committed suicide the day the taped interview was scheduled to air on CNN.
Later that year, the estate of Duckett brought a wrongful death claim against Grace. The claim alleged emotional distress, and that the young woman shot herself due to the harsh and pointed line of questioning from Grace.
Duckett’s grandfather, Bill Eubank, told the Orlando Sentinel, “Nancy Grace and the others, they just bashed her to the end. She was not one anyone ever would have thought of to do something like this.”
In November 2010, the wrongful death suit was dismissed following a $200,000 settlement agreement. But the award did not go directly to Duckett’s surviving family, as is typically the case with wrongful death claims. Instead, the settlement stipulated that Grace use those funds to establish a trust dedicated to finding Duckett’s missing son, who was 2-years-old when he disappeared.
◉ Examples of High-Profile Wrongful Death Cases Involving Police
While George Floyd’s multi-million dollar wrongful death settlement ranks as one of the higher figures among any claim in the last few decades, where does it stand in terms of civil suits involving police?
Since 2015, there have been a number of major financial settlements in wrongful death cases against law enforcement. According to the Al Jazeera media company, George Floyd’s wrongful death settlement at $27 million is actually the highest for a police killing over the past few years. Below we’ll examine five additional major wrongful death settlements involving police.
◉ Breonna Taylor v. City of Louisville
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, was killed March 13, 2020, by Louisville, Kentucky, police. Taylor was shot to death in her bed after Louisville Metro Police Department officers served a “no-knock” warrant at her apartment, entering the home with a battering ram in a drug raid on what turned out to be the wrong house.
The city of Louisville announced a $12 million wrongful death settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family in September of last year. The settlement, which also includes multiple police reform measures, is considered the largest figure ever reached by the city in an officer-involved shooting case.
Details regarding the reform measures included in the settlement are as follows:
Breonna Taylor’s murder and ensuing wrongful death settlement initiated worldwide headlines and established an ongoing debate over “no-knock” warrants.
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◉ Walter Scott v. City of North Charleston, South Carolina
In 2015, 50-year-old Walter Scott was fatally shot by Police Officer Michael Slager after being pulled over for a faulty brake light. Daschcam video footage from Slager’s police cruiser captured an initial discussion between the two men. Slager returned to his vehicle for a moment, at which time Scott got out of his car. When Slager ordered Scott to return to his vehicle, Scott ran.
A bystander captured the ensuing moments on a cellphone. After a brief struggle, the footage shows Slager shooting Scott in the back eight times as he runs in the opposite direction of the officer.
In October 2015, the North Charleston City Council voted unanimously, 10-0, to pay a $6.5 million settlement to the family of Walter Scott.
◉ Freddie Gray v. City of Baltimore
On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray died due to injuries sustained while in police custody after an arrest for knife possession. Gray had been handcuffed, with leg iron restraints also being used to transport him for booking. Gray reportedly sustained a severe spinal cord injury after being thrown into the back of a Baltimore Police Department van. Shortly thereafter, Gray’s family filed a wrongful death suit.
In September of that year, Baltimore Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, issued a $6.4 million settlement to Gray’s family. Former Baltimore Mayor and University of Baltimore President, Kurt L. Schmoke, hailed the decisive action. “The mayor and her staff are trying to do all they can to heal the wounds in the community, and this is a step in the right direction,” said Schmoke. “This settlement will give some people in the community at least some sense of justice.”
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old motorist, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in the St. Paul, Minnesota, suburb of Falcon Heights. The officer involved in the shooting, Jeronimo Yanez of the St. Anthony Police Department, fired his weapon after Castile informed him he had a gun (which he was licensed to carry) inside the vehicle.
“Sir, I do have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me,” Castile says. “Okay,” the officer responds. “Don’t reach for it then.” Seconds later, the following transpired:
Officer Yanez: “Don’t pull it out.”
Castile: “I’m not pulling it out.”
Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was live streaming the entire altercation on Facebook. “He’s not… [pulling the gun out],” Reynolds says. Officer Yanez, once again, says, “Don’t pull it out.”
A moment later, Yanez fired seven close-range shots into the car, wounding Castile five times. He died approximately 20 minutes later at Hennepin County Medical Center. Reynolds’ four-year-old daughter was in the back seat of the vehicle at the time of the killing.
With the incident being captured on video and live streamed via social media, a wave of public outrage followed. Castile’s family immediately filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
In the final settlement, Castile’s family was awarded $3 million. Diamond Reynolds also received $800,000 in a separate settlement.
◉ Stephon Clark v. City of Sacramento
On March 18, 2018, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot and killed by two Sacramento Police Department Officers while in his grandmother’s backyard. The officers were responding to a 911 call alleging a man wearing a black hoodie was breaking car windows in the neighborhood. Clark had a phone in his hand, which the officers – Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet – believed was a gun. They fired 20 rounds, striking him at least seven times. Clark’s grandmother was in the house at the time of the killing.
“All of a sudden I heard shots like pow pow pow. I heard four of them,” Clark’s grandmother said, according to a witness statement in the Sacramento Police Department report. “I thought it might have been fireworks because I could see the flash and I do not know if gun shots do that. I grabbed my granddaughter and laid on the floor.”
Clark’s family filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit in January 2019. The claim, brought on behalf of Clark’s sons, parents, and grandparents, sought damages of more than $20 million, including funeral and burial expenses.
Clark’s killing incited nationwide protests after prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers involved in the shooting. U.S. District Judge John Mendez eventually approved a $2.4 million settlement between the city of Sacramento and Clark’s family.
One of the most publicized wrongful death claims in the last couple of years was filed after the tragic death of Los Angeles Lakers superstar, Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna. Byant’s widow, Vanessa, immediately filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
The claim names multiple defendants, including the estate of the helicopter pilot, Ara Zobayan, who also died in the February 2020 crash near Woodland Hills, California. The Vanessa Bryant wrongful death lawsuit also lists the helicopter company, Island Express Helicopters, and the parent company, Island Express Holding Corporation, in the claim.
The suit has yet to reach a conclusion, with the defendants adamantly claiming the tragic helicopter crash was “an act of God” and “an unavoidable accident.”
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Wrongful death claims are frequently mentioned in the media, but the average layperson may not have a complete understanding of what such a lawsuit entails. This may have to do with the fact that wrongful death claims can be brought under a variety of different circumstances and scenarios. Major car accidents, medical malpractice incidents, and even murders can fall under the wrongful death personal injury subcategory.
A wrongful death claim is entirely separate from any criminal proceedings (e.g. the O.J. Simpson case), and the two types of cases can actually run concurrently. The conclusion of one case does not impact the other, and while criminal charges are much harder to enforce under the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ burden of proof, wrongful death civil claims have a lower threshold.
In wrongful death civil claims, your attorney must prove that an act of negligence or harm was “more than likely” committed. This is why many incidents leading to both criminal and civil charges often have different outcomes, with a not guilty verdict in a criminal case and a multi-million dollar settlement in a civil matter.
In a wrongful death lawsuit, your attorney will attempt to recover various types of damages that typically fall under three categories: economic, non-economic, and punitive.
Common examples of economic damages available in wrongful death lawsuits include:
Common examples of non-economic damages available in wrongful death lawsuits include:
Punitive damages, while rare, may be awarded under abhorrent circumstances of violence, oppression, malice, fraud, or wanton and wicked conduct on the part of a defendant. DLG pursues punitive damages in all eligible wrongful death cases.
If your loved one died as a result of negligence or harm, you may be entitled to substantial financial compensation. Contact the experienced attorneys at DLG’s Wrongful Death Division for information on filing a claim. We have a 98% success rate and have successfully recovered more than $100,000,000 for our satisfied clients.
George Floyd’s Death Highlights the Need for Systemic Change
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