The sudden death of a loved one devastates families. Depending on the situation, survivors must not only cope with emotional trauma, pain, and grief, but they might also have added financial stress. Families may have to handle the costs of medical care, a reduction in household income, and increased household responsibilities. Losing a loved one is challenging on its own.
However, it is even more difficult when you know your family member would still be alive if a police offer had not abused their power. The use of unnecessary deadly force is an abuse of police power that only compounds the devastation of the loss.
Pennsylvania law permits surviving family members to seek compensation for damages in a wrongful death suit. When an individual dies at the hands of the police, their surviving family members may be entitled to compensation. Money will not undo the damage or bring your loved one back. However, it can help alleviate the financial burdens resulting from your loved one’s death.
Wrongful death lawsuits against the police hold departments accountable for their actions. Holding officers accountable when they abuse their power may serve to deter similar behavior in the future. It may prevent the same excessive force or police brutality from causing more death and destruction.
If you have lost a loved one in a wrongful death at the hands of the police, you need to contact a qualified wrongful death attorney. An attorney with experience in police brutality, excessive force, and wrongful death cases can help you understand your claim. Until you get a chance to schedule a consultation, keep reading to learn more about wrongful death suits in Pennsylvania. The article discusses general information about police brutality and excessive force as it applies to wrongful death suits.
Pennsylvania’s Legal Definition of Wrongful Death
Unfortunately, far too many situations occur where a person dies because of a police officer. However, not every death caused by a police officer is “wrongful.” Pennsylvania’s definition of wrongful death, however, is quite broad. Under Pennsylvania law, a wrongful death is the “death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence.” If your loved one died at the hands of a police officer, you must prove that the officer was negligent or used unlawful violence.
When officers of the law use excessive force or engage in police brutality, they have violated a citizen’s Constitutional rights. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment speak to a citizen’s right to due process. When excessive force or police brutality results in death; a police officer has engaged in unlawful violence. Unlawful violence may form the basis of your wrongful death lawsuit providing the foundation to hold him or her accountable.
Examples of Wrongful Death at the Hands of the Police
Police brutality and excessive force leading to the death of suspects, criminals, and bystanders have gained national attention in recent years. Some examples of recent wrongful death claims against the police in Pennsylvania include:
- A federal lawsuit claims Pennsylvania State Police are responsible for the death of a marijuana grower. Police ordered a state worker to chase him with a bulldozer, while they followed the 51-year-old man with a helicopter. The bulldozer crushed the man from his neck to his pelvis.
- Six officers, who were part of the Narcotics Field Unit, surrounded a Tacony man in his car. The officers were going to raid his home for drugs, but then noticed his car. The man began to move back and forth when officers told him to shut off his engine. One of the officers allegedly fired three times into the car, killing him.
- The family of a disabled 31-year-old man who depended on a walker, filed a wrongful death suit. Three Philadelphia police officers allegedly shot him in front of his home. The officers fired seven shots into the man’s torso and legs after he allegedly took two of their guns. One of which was still in the holster and the other he had pointed at himself.
Philadelphia Police Force’s Directive on Deadly Force
Most police jurisdictions around the country employ a “use of force” continuum to provide guidelines for officers. Philadelphia’s police department with more than 6,000 officers is the fourth largest in the nation. Philadelphia police department uses a continuum for use of force policies. Directive 10.1 speaks directly to the use of force involving the discharge of firearms. The directive provides the following guidance to Philadelphia police officers:
- Officers must hold a high regard for human life, dignity, and liberty of all. Deadly force should only be used in extreme circumstances when all other avenues have been explored.
- Using deadly force is the most serious act a police officer can engage in while on duty. Carrying a weapon gives an officer power. An officer must employ that power responsibly.
- Officers cannot use deadly force unless they have an objectively reasonable belief they need to protect themselves or another person from severe harm or fatality. Once the danger has subsided, so does the justification for deadly force.
- Officers must give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.
- Officers should not discharge their weapons when they might put innocents in danger.
- Officers must remember that some subjects can’t respond to commands for a wide array of reasons—for instance, the influence of controlled substances, mental health issues, medical conditions, or language barriers. Officers must consider these factors when deciding whether or not to use deadly force.
- If an officer uses deadly force, he or she must immediately get medical assistance for the subject, if it is safe to do so.
- Any officer who witnesses excessive force must report it to their supervisor and Internal Affairs.
If an officer-involved shooting takes place, the Philadelphia Police Force should take immediate measures and remove the offending officer from street duty. The department reviews the officer’s actions and the circumstances of the shooting, as well as informing the District Attorney.
Family Member Eligibility for a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Claim
If you believe your loved died because he was a victim of police negligence, police brutality, or excessive force, Pennsylvania law entitles surviving family members to seek compensation. Wrongful death lawsuits may provide damages in a civil lawsuit against the liable parties. However, you must file the lawsuit within Pennsylvania’s two-year statute of limitations.
The law requires that a personal representative of the estate of the deceased must file the lawsuit. This representative might be assigned in a will. In the event there is no will, the court will assign an estate representative. Even though a personal representative files the lawsuit, he or she does so on behalf of eligible survivors. Under Pennsylvania law, only the decedent’s spouse, children, or parents can be beneficiaries of money secured in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Types of Recoverable Damages in Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Suits
Pennsylvania law states that eligible family members might recover compensation for medical, hospital, nursing, and funeral expenses. Additionally, they may be compensated for the cost of the administration of the estate and other economic and non-economic damages, which include:
- Money for expenses the deceased would have paid or given to family members if he or she were still living. For example, rent, mortgage payments, or groceries.
- Money to replace services the deceased would have provided to the family if he or she were still alive. For example, childcare, cooking, cleaning, lawn care, outdoor maintenance, and home repairs.
- Compensation to the spouse for loss of companionship.
- Compensation to minor children for the loss of parental guidance and support.
- Compensation for mental anguish and emotional distress incurred as a result of their loved one’s death.
Survival Claims in Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Cases
Depending on the circumstances of your loved one’s death, you might also file a survival claim at the same time you file your wrongful death claim. A survival claim specifically addresses the injuries suffered by the deceased before the time of death. For example, if a police officer shoots a suspect and the suspect spends two weeks in the hospital before dying, a survival claim will seek compensation for damages incurred during that two-week period. The deceased, however, cannot make the claim, so the estate representative will do so on his or her behalf.
Ultimately, a survival claim compensates the deceased, which means any settlement or award goes to the estate. This is different than a wrongful death claim which compensates eligible family members. If the estate prevails in a survival claim, the money goes to the estate and is then distributed among beneficiaries of the decedent’s will or by state laws if no will exists.
Types of Damages in a Pennsylvania Survivor Claim
When a person dies a wrongful death at the hands of the police, a survivor claim compensates that person in the same way it would if he or she were alive. Recoverable damages in a survival claim are the same or similar to other types of personal injury claims. If the estate reaches a settlement with the police department or a court rules in favor of the estate of the deceased, compensation for damages might include:
- Medical treatment before death, including ambulance transportation, surgery, hospitalization, medication, and diagnostic imaging.
- Lost wages and benefits up until the time of death.
- Future lost wages and benefits.
- Physical pain and suffering up until the time of death.
- Emotional pain and suffering up until the time of death.
- Other non-economic damages which might apply to a specific case.
Punitive damages are typically reserved for rare cases which include intentional harm or gross negligence. It’s not uncommon to seek punitive damages when a wrongful death occurs at the hands of the police. Punitive damages are not uncommon when excessive force or police brutality caused the death. Your attorney will advise you on whether or not punitive damages apply to your situation.
Wrongful death claims and survival claims are often filed together as part of the same overall lawsuit. When this happens, the court will not duplicate damages. For example, if you seek compensation for the financial contributions of the deceased to make house payments, in the wrongful death claim you cannot seek lost wages in a survivor claim (because they were used to make those house payments). Your attorney will advise you on the best course of action for you and your family.
How Legal Representation Can Help After a Family Member Dies at the Hands of the Police
If you are dealing with the sudden and tragic loss of a family member due to negligence, brutality, or excessive force, you and your family are going a traumatic experience. It is challenging to come to terms with your loved one’s death. We know money cannot undo your loss. However, it can help you alleviate any financial burden you’ve been carrying as a result of your loss.
A skilled wrongful death attorney who has dealt with police-involved deaths, understands the emotional trauma you are going through. Your attorney can investigate the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death. They will gather relevant documents, interview witnesses, and diligently uncover facts to build a strong case against those responsible for your loved one’s death.
Your attorney will also handle communication with the police department and their insurance company, which often includes settlement negotiations. When settlement is not an option, an experienced and competent lawyer will go to court to litigate your case and pursue the best outcome possible.
Your attorney can help you and your family seek the justice you deserve after a family member dies at the hands of the police by suing for damages. Additionally, the claim will effectively hold the police accountable for their actions. This can help future citizens from having to suffer the same tragic outcome as your family. While your lawyer handles the details of your case, you can focus on grieving your loss. The sooner you can process, the sooner you can begin healing and move forward.