What Trayvon's Family Risks in a Civil Case Against Zimmerman

The parents of Trayvon Martin, Tracy Martin, second from left, and Sybrina Fulton, second from right, join hands as they watch a news conference from Washington, with special prosecutor Angela Corey announcing charges against George Zimmerman on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. Front left are Benjamin Crump and Trayvon Martin's brother Jahvaris Fulton, right, and in the back row are W. Franklyn Richardson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jamal Bryant. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
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Since the O.J. Simpson case, a wrongful death suit has been the obvious recourse for a bereaved family after a failed murder prosecution. The lawyer for Trayvon Martin's family has said that they are considering such a civil action against George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in Martin's death.

But 21st century Florida is not California in the 1990s. In particular, the law known as Stand Your Ground not only presents a significant hurdle to proving Zimmerman's liability for Martin's death; it could also lead to the Martin family owing money to the man who killed their son.

If a civil suit were brought against Zimmerman, his lawyers could move to have the case dismissed under Stand Your Ground. According to the statute, ABC News explains, "a person whose self defense claim is found lawful 'is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such self defense.'" If such a motion were to succeed -- the decision would be a judge's -- Zimmerman could win "reasonable attorneys fees, court costs, compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred in defense of any civil action brought by a plaintiff," according to Dan Abrams, ABC's Chief Legal Affairs anchor.

In other words, Trayvon Martin's family would have to pay George Zimmerman.

Even if Martin's family were to prevail in a civil case, the example of O.J. Simpson shows that winning a judgment and collecting the money are different propositions. In 1997, after his acquittal on murder charges, Simpson was found liable for the wrongful deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, to the tune of $33.5 million. But the NFL Hall of Famer reportedly paid little of that sum, which by 2007 had grown to $40 million with interest, before the armed robbery that landed him in prison.

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Zimmerman is already hard up for cash, relying on supporters to fund his legal defense -- which might not be over: The Justice Department has reopened its investigation into Martin's death, which could result in a federal case charging Zimmerman with violating Martin's civil rights. (In what The Washington Post calls "an unusual move," public feedback is currently being collected as part of the inquiry.) Zimmerman's options for income now are limited, if potentially lucrative: Casey Anthony's attorney, Jose Baez, told USA Today that gun shows and Second Amendment events would "pay top dollar" to Zimmerman to appear as a speaker; along with the possibility of a book deal, "It's the only way I see him make any money." Extracting money from a defendant with financial problems can require additional litigation, as the Simpson civil case demonstrated, consuming plaintiffs' time and resources. (Simpson in fact moved to Florida, where laws protect a person's residence and pension from creditors, during his legal cat-and-mouse game with the Goldman family.)

So a civil case is risky. On the one hand, as CNN explains, "Wrongful death is easier to prove than murder or manslaughter," since a defendant can be held liable "even if he or she didn't intend to cause the victim's death, according to Florida law. Simple negligence is enough, if it results in death." Zimmerman's decision to follow Martin, when a police dispatcher told him, "OK, we don't need you to do that," could be presented as evidence of negligence. But as Bloomberg notes, "Florida is a comparative fault state, meaning jurors would weigh both Martin's and Zimmerman's culpability." Following Florida's case against Zimmerman, at least one juror was left with the impression that Trayvon Martin "played a huge role" in his own death: "He didn't have to do what he did and come back and be in a fight," she said.

Several attorneys in central Florida told the Orlando Sentinel there haven't been appellate cases in the state that offer precedent for a civil court dealing with self-defense claims like Zimmerman's. A wrongful death suit claiming negligence would have to be filed within two years; no time limit restricts those that allege intentional death. According to a personal injury lawyer who spoke to Bloomberg, "Most cases claim negligence so damages can be covered be the defendant's homeowner's insurance," making full payment more likely.