How does civil liability work in self-defense cases?


PDA






GuyWithQuestions
June 14, 2007, 03:46 AM
I hear quite often people saying that if you use lethal force to defend yourself, you not only have to survive the actual attack and criminal charges, but also civil lawsuits. On one thread on THR, someone said that you shouldn't use hollow point bullets because although from a criminal court's point of view you should be good, from a civil liability point of view you could be in trouble (which I don't understand). So how does that work? I don't know if I've heard correctly, but I've heard that most people, including law students, don't understand how law suits actually work. I heard that you can't just sue someone and win because they did something morally wrong, caused you distress, or caused you a lot of damage or injury. I've heard that first you have to prove that they owed you a legal duty. If there's no legal duty then there can be no liability. Liability and legal duty are the flip sides of the same coin. Citizens can't sue the police for refusing to help them because LE's legal duty is to the government, not to individual citizens. If a store has a sign posted "We have the right to refuse service to anyone" you can't sue them if they don't sell you something and that hurts you somehow. Second, I've heard that you have to prove that they actually failed to fulfill their legal duty. Third, you need to prove that because of that failure to fulfill their legal duty, damages occurred (you sue to receive compensation). Fourth, you have to prove that the damages were actual and if so, to what extent the other party will have to compensate you. If someone runs into the back of your car and causes damages and injury, they owed you a legal duty not to follow too closely. You can show they failed to do that because the police cited the person for following too closely and it's obvious that they rear ended you from the pictures. There are actual damages because you have auto and medical bills because of the incident. Fourth, you can show just how much they should compensate you.

Can anyone verify if what I've heard about civil liability is correct?

If what I've heard is correct, how does this apply to civil liability law suits when someone shoots in self-defense? What legal duty does the plaintiff claim you failed to fulfill? Wrongful death? Personal injury? How do the courts determine you owed the plaintiff a legal duty in the first place and what the name of the duty is? Is there some secret book that they pull it out of? Let's say a relative wants to sue you for wrongful death of their precious serial killer. If in a criminal court they show that you were reasonably justified in using lethal force because you were using it to prevent the unlawful use of like force being used against yourself, how would the plaintiff make a reasonable case in a civil liability case? Sorry about any ignorance I may have, I'm just very curious and I'm sure others would benefit from this knowledge also.

If you enjoyed reading about "How does civil liability work in self-defense cases?" here in TheHighRoad.org archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join TheHighRoad.org today for the full version!
Cosmoline
June 14, 2007, 04:31 AM
As a general matter, self defense works the same in both criminal and civil court. The law in civil cases can be more complex in some respects, but the basic principles still apply, albeit in a new form.

I've heard that first you have to prove that they owed you a legal duty.

That's generally true for negligence actions. The elements of the tort of negligence are often expressed as duty, breach, cause, damages. Negligence suits are the most commonly encountered, as they often arise out of slip and falls, MVA's and the like. If you kill someone in self defense, however, and get sued, you would typically be facing a wrongful death suit based on allegations of intentional, not merely negligent, conduct. In other words, if you kill a person in self defense it probably wasn't an accident. Your main defense would then be that you acted in self defense.

In one thread on THR, someone said that you shouldn't use hollow point bullets because although from a criminal court's point of view you should be good, from a civil liability point of view you could be in trouble (which I don't understand).

Neither do I. Use what works best to save your life.

Let's say a relative wants to sue you for wrongful death of their precious serial killer. If in a criminal court they show that you were reasonably justified in using lethal force because you were using it to prevent the unlawful use of like force being used against yourself, how would the plaintiff make a reasonable case in a civil liability case?

That gets complicated. Don't worry about it. Worry about whether or not you are facing imminent and unlawful deadly force.

The only thing I would suggest worrying about when it comes to the interaction of civil and criminal court is make sure you have an attorney if you're facing criminal charges. Accepting a guilty or even a no contest plea in the criminal case, for example, CAN INDEED have very negative implications in a subsequent civil case. You must have good legal counsel and be appraised of the risks in order to weigh your options properly.

GuyWithQuestions
June 14, 2007, 04:59 AM
If you tell the police that you shot to stop the deadly threat, not to injure or kill, would that limit the plaintiff's claim that you had intentional conduct in wrongful death, or how does that work?

nelson133
June 14, 2007, 06:09 AM
Here's a suggestion, get your state legislature to pass a "Stand Your Ground" bill package or live in a state that already has one. In Michigan the laws have removed the right to sue from the criminal and his/her relatives.

SteveS
June 14, 2007, 08:39 AM
In Michigan the laws have removed the right to sue from the criminal and his/her relatives.

Read the law carefully. It depends on the circumstances.

Bartholomew Roberts
June 14, 2007, 08:59 AM
Well, I think one of the problems is that while your understanding of what it takes to WIN a civil case is correct; however, what it takes to FILE a civil case and drag you into court and cause you to spend money is a lot lower hurdle.

Typically as a lawyer representing the bad guy's estate, you are looking at two angles: You either used more force than was necessary or you shot my client negligently (have any trigger work done on that pistol you were holding him at gunpoint with? I bet my client was quietly complying with your every command and you accidentally shot him with your defective gun/hair trigger).

Real life incident: New York police officer wakes up to find man has broken into his house at 3am. He draws firearm and orders man to halt. Man tries to attack him with a nearby vacuum cleaner. He shoots and kills man. Parents of deceased drug-addled burglar sue man and police department in civil court for wrongful death, excessive force, etc. Case is dismissed by judge at summary judgment before a trial is even started. Upset parents appeal. Case is dismissed at summary judgment by appeals court.

So the case was so weak it didn't even make it to trial, easy win right? Except that to make it just to summary judgment, you have discovery, depositions, pleadings, motions to exclude or admit evidence, etc. In fact, most of what happens in the trial will be decided long before you even get there. You absolutely need a lawyer for most of it and when a single deposition can last six hours @ $200/hour, you can run up impressive legal bills quickly. Around here, 95% of civil cases settle before they reach trial. Most civil suits of this nature that I've read about (and that is only 6-10 maybe) aren't really about winning as much as they are about:

A) Shaking you, your employer (cops), or your insurance company down for money
B) Angry, grieved family members willing to pay a lawyer to persecute you to the fullest extent of the law

In one case involving a Texas CHL, the spouse of the deceased sued the shooter in civil court because she wasn't getting child support anymore and wanted compensation. Is that suit going to go anywhere? No. Will it complicate your life and make you spend money? Absolutely. That is one of the goals even - to complicate your life and make you spend money to the point that you will settle the suit and pay out some money.

armoredman
June 14, 2007, 10:34 AM
AZ state law, under definitions of justification, Title 13, Criminal Code,
13-413. No civil liability for justified conduct

No person in this state shall be subject to civil liability for engaging in conduct otherwise justified pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.



And that was in place BEFORE we added Castle Doctrine.

Cosmoline
June 14, 2007, 04:29 PM
If you tell the police that you shot to stop the deadly threat, not to injure or kill, would that limit the plaintiff's claim that you had intentional conduct in wrongful death, or how does that work?

"Shooting to stop" in that context is a word game. If you shot a fellow with a firearm and he dies, you should not try to claim you didn't expect him to die. It's a perfect example of how the more you try to be clever, the more trouble you're likely to get yourself into. You need to get a lawyer after you kill someone, pretty much as a general rule. If you must give a statement to the officers without counsel, keep it fact specific and don't try to play word games.

ronto
June 14, 2007, 04:45 PM
According to my CHL instructor who is a retired LEO and currently is a judge:
Say NOTHING to the police without your lawyer being present even if you face the threat of arrest.

Cosmoline
June 14, 2007, 05:01 PM
I'd add--ESPECIALLY if you face the threat of arrest.

LawBot5000
June 14, 2007, 05:12 PM
<not legal advice>
To be honest, see your local statutes or better yet, consult a local lawyer who has handled such cases before. They can tell you the exact legal landscape that you inhabit. Many times, local jury attitudes can be the dominant factor in determining whether something is illegal, especially self defense. For example, a juror in rural NY might have a very different view of whether something was a good shoot than someone in NYC (which makes the laws).

Under common law, self defense is typically an absolute bar against civil liability. If you had reason to believe that you were under an attack that would cause death or serious injury, you can't be sued by your attacker for anything you do to harm him. Under common law, unless you were reckless in your self defense, innocent bystanders couldn't successfully sue you either. Whether you are under attack goes to a reasonable belief of the defender as determined by the jury.

Many statutes have since specified:
-when self defense is allowed
-things you are required to do before defending yourself
-how much force is allowed
-what weapons you can use
-under what circumstances you are not liable

There is much difference between say Texas and Massachussets. Texas law considers it self defense to shoot someone fleeing with your property. Massachussets forbids self defense until you have exhausted all avenues of retreat, even in your home. Many states permit self defense without retreat in the home, but require it outdoors. Some states consider your backyard to be part of your home, others do not. Etc.

Either get to work researching or consult a local lawyer. Best is to probably do both.
</not legal advice>

LawBot5000
June 14, 2007, 05:21 PM
<not legal advice>
And obviously you can defend yourself from ordinary (non serious) bodily harm under common law, but not with deadly force. I assumed that the OP is talking about shooting people with guns, which many jurisdictions automatically consider deadly force.
</not legal advice>

oneshooter
June 14, 2007, 05:53 PM
In Texas the new law is that if any ONE of the following happens:

You are not charged by law enforcement

You are "no-billed" by a grand jury

You are found "not guilty" in a criminal trial


THEN you can not be sued in cival court for "wrongfull death".

Oneshooter
Livin in Texas


This becomes the law of the land on 1 Sept. 2007!

Cosmoline
June 14, 2007, 09:28 PM
Also, remember we're talking about liability here. Not about whether you can be sued. Anybody can sue anybody for anything. I could sue someone for annoying me at breakfast. The clerks will accept any filing in proper form with the proper fees paid. That doesn't mean it's a viable suit.

If you enjoyed reading about "How does civil liability work in self-defense cases?" here in TheHighRoad.org archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join TheHighRoad.org today for the full version!