Acquitted of Murder, Zimmerman May Yet Face Wrongful Death Lawsuit

On July 13, 2013, after 16 hours of deliberation, the jury in the murder trial against George Zimmerman rendered their verdict: not guilty. That means Zimmerman will not go to prison for the February 26, 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. But his legal troubles are not yet over.

As you may already know, an individual may be prosecuted in both criminal and civil proceedings when they are alleged to be responsible for the death of another. The civil side is called a wrongful death lawsuit. Perhaps the best-known example in the U.S. is that of O. J. Simpson. In 1995, Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. But in a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit brought by the parents of Nicole Simpson and Goldman, O. J. Simpson was ordered to pay a combined $46.1 million to the victims’ families.

Likewise, George Zimmerman is likely to face a wrongful death lawsuit. Zimmerman is not a target with great personal wealth like Simpson, and any large civil judgment against him may go mostly unpaid. But Trayvon Martin’s family may nevertheless decide to sue.

You may wonder how a civil lawsuit can succeed if prosecutors have already failed to prove a suspect’s guilt in a lengthy criminal trial. Civil suits are decided by entirely separate juries from their corresponding criminal trials, but more importantly, they are decided by different standards of proof. In criminal trials, juries must find a defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict. One small, but reasonable, doubt can negate a mountain of evidence. But in civil lawsuits, all that is typically necessary is a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning that it is more likely than not that the defendant is guilty. This is far easier to argue.

In fact, Martin’s parents have already filed and settled a wrongful death suit against the homeowners’ association that owns the gated community in which he was killed. As is usually the case in such settlements, the terms are confidential, and the association did not admit guilt in Martin’s death. However, Martin’s parents are said to have previously rejected a settlement offer of $1 million.

Zimmerman could also face federal civil rights charges. The NAACP is petitioning the Department of Justice to file those charges, alleging Zimmerman violated Martin’s civil rights. The DOJ has said they will examine the evidence to determine whether such a violation occurred.