What Happens Where There Is Wrongful Death by a Police Officer?

August 12, 2020

If a family member died while in custody or due to actions by law enforcement, could you file a lawsuit if there was a wrongful death by a police officer? Both state and federal law make it difficult, but not impossible, to maintain such a lawsuit against a law enforcement agency.

Wrongful death is a civil lawsuit brought against a party who caused the death of a family member. That means typically the party acted negligently or intentionally when causing a fatal injury. When these claims involve private individuals, companies, or non-profit organizations, they can involve just about any situation where serious mistakes or intentional acts caused a death.

State Law Limitations on Wrongful Death Lawsuits Against Police Departments

Under Pennsylvania law, that’s not the case if a government entity is involved. State statutes limit wrongful death claims. The legislature has allowed law enforcement broad leeway in performing its role. As a result, there are many legal technicalities of filing a claim.

If the state police are involved, Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act provides that, as a general rule, the Commonwealth is immune from suit for negligence in state and federal courts. There are many exceptions, however. The most relevant exception to law enforcement immunity is the operation of a motor vehicle.

Exceptions to the General Rule for Local Police

One reason it is difficult to charge a police officer with wrongful death in Pennsylvania is the broad protection the state statutes seem to provide. If the police department is a local one, 42 Pa. C.S. 8541 states:

“Except as otherwise provided in this subchapter, no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person. “

So, when can you charge a police officer with wrongful death? One opportunity is when an officer does not have immunity and when that officer was negligent in his or her actions. The statute also states that a local law enforcement agency shall be liable for damages caused by an injury, if both of the following apply:

  • Damages could be recovered under common law (law made by judges over time) or a cause of action created by statute if the injury was caused by a person not having governmental or official immunity.
  • The injury is the result of negligent acts by the police department or its employee acting within the scope of their duties concerning one of the listed exceptions to the general rule.

What About Wrongful Death by a Police Officer in a Vehicle Accident?

One exception to the broad scope of police immunity from charges of wrongful death is when the police officer is driving a vehicle. However, if a driver was fleeing or otherwise resisting arrest, or helping others do the same, it is much more difficult to claim that a police officer was negligent while driving. Under this exception of operating a vehicle, there may be a valid claim if your loved one was involved in a fatal accident with a police vehicle negligently driven by the officer.

There are times when immunity protection for an officer or police department doesn’t apply. There would be no immunity for local police departments under this statute if the acts or conduct by the officer were criminal, fraudulent, malicious, or willful. But a police department, like all employers, usually is liable when employees act within the scope of their job. A law enforcement agency may argue that it’s not responsible for an employee’s committing crimes or willful misconduct.

Legal cases that involve potential police misconduct resulting in a death are very complex, overall, and the possibility to hold an officer, a police department, or both responsible makes these cases even more challenging. If your loved one was killed by police action and you believe it was a wrongful death, you should speak with one of our wrongful death attorneys at Wapner Newman.

Wrongful Death from Police Shootings and Federal Law

If local or state police caused the death of a family member, federal law (42 U.S.C. § 1983) may be used by the surviving relatives to seek damages. It states that law enforcement officers subjecting any U.S. resident to “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” may be liable for injuries.

These injury or wrongful death claims could include allegations of:

  • use of excessive force
  • denial of medical care
  • lack of training.

While these are situations in which you may be able to prove a police officer’s actions resulted in a wrongful death, the standards of proof are high. There is a lot of leeway in defining what actions an officer can take that are deemed reasonable by law.

Police can use force in proportion to what’s necessary in the situation. Whether what was done was appropriate could be decided by a jury. But the issue may never get that far. There are strong legal defenses for law enforcement in wrongful death cases. There are also higher standards of proof compared to wrongful death claims against other types of defendants. So, what might seem a clearly negligent action by an average citizen that resulted in your loved one’s death may not be deemed as negligence when the person responsible for the death is a law enforcement officer.

How Does Qualified Immunity Apply to Wrongful Death Cases in Police Shootings?

In cases of wrongful death from police shootings, if an officer is sued as an individual, the officer’s qualified immunity may be a problem for a plaintiff. It limits legal claims to when the defendant violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. Officials are protected if the federal appeals courts (including the Supreme Court) haven’t found constitutional rights violations in similar circumstances in the past.

Qualified immunity’s severe limitations on constitutional protections of those arrested by or in contact with the police has been widely criticized. It has been made an issue by those protesting the well-publicized deaths of Black Americans caused by police officers. There are proposals in Congress to end qualified immunity for law enforcement, including the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 and the End Qualified Immunity Act. To best argue a case in which law enforcement claims qualified immunity, you need a skilled attorney with experience in wrongful death cases to represent you.

West Virginia Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Police Officers Moves Forward

Qualified immunity has its limits, which can bring hope to those whose loved ones died as a result of police action in what may be a wrongful death. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected qualified immunity as a defense in a West Virginia case in June. Defendants are a group of police officers involved in the killing of Wayne Jones in 2013. Forbes reports that he died after they tased, choked, beat, and shot him 22 times while he lay on the ground.

Judge Henry Floyd wrote the decision, stating, “Non-cooperation with law enforcement has never given officers carte blanche to use deadly force against a suspect… Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split-second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives.” There are some cases where violation of a person’s constitutional rights is so blatant that actions taken by police can be proven to have caused a wrongful death.

Contact Our Experienced Philadelphia Wrongful Death Lawyers

If you have lost a loved one in Pennsylvania or New Jersey and are considering a wrongful death lawsuit against police, please contact Wapner Newman today at (215) 569-0900 to schedule a free case evaluation. We represent wrongful death victims throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and we have offices in Philadelphia, West Conshohocken, Allentown, and Marlton. Our attorneys have experience with wrongful death cases and can navigate the legal system for you. We’ll make sure you understand what’s happening with your case at each step in the process.