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Can You Sue for a Wrongful Death by a Police Officer?

October 30, 2020

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Recently, the Court of Appeals Division in Washington State overturned a ruling after a woman sued state police officers for using excessive force on her husband, which resulted in his death. While the trial court initially issued a directed verdict, meaning the widow could not recover damages for the death, that ruling has been overturned. Now that the Court of Appeals has overturned the ruling and the widow can move forward with the lawsuit.

The story is a sad but interesting one. Cases involving police brutality have emerged throughout the entire country, including here in Pennsylvania. So, if you have lost a loved one due to excessive force used by police, do you have a valid lawsuit? Like so many other legal issues, the answer is that it depends.

State Law on Wrongful Death Lawsuits Against the Police

State law in Pennsylvania makes it very difficult to file a wrongful death claim against government entities, including those involving a police officer. The Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act states that generally speaking, the Commonwealth is immune from lawsuits against negligence. However, there are certain exceptions. One exception is that when a police officer is in a vehicle, and not chasing a suspect that has fled, they can be held liable if they cause an accident that results in damages.

Federal Law on Wrongful Death Lawsuits Against the Police

The federal statute 42 U.S.C., Section 1983 allows surviving loved ones to file a claim seeking damages when a police officer has caused the wrongful death of a relative. Family members can file a claim any time police officers have deprived a person of their rights, privileges, and immunities provided by the Constitution and laws. Wrongful death and other injury claims against police under this statute can include use of excessive force, a denial of medical attention, and lack of training.

Although civil claims against police officers for wrongful death are possible under federal law, they also carry a very high burden of proof. Police officers are given significant leeway when carrying out their duties, as sometimes situations do require them to use a great deal of force. In many cases, it is left to a jury to determine whether the use of force was required for the officer to do their job. Prior to this step even being taken, police officers will use a number of legal defenses that may help with their case.

Were You a Victim of Police Brutality? Call Our Pennsylvania Personal Injury Lawyers

Police have a very serious job to do and in most cases, they do it quite well. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. If you believe that you or a loved one was the victim of police brutality, you may have a claim, but they are very difficult to file. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, our Allentown personal injury lawyers can help. We know what is required to file these claims, and how to prove them so you can recover the full amount of compensation you deserve. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation so we can review your case.


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