The question has become potent in recent years: How can surviving family members obtain justice when a loved one has been killed, without cause, by police?
In New Mexico, some families are turning to the legal system. Specifically, they are filing ‘wrongful death’ claims against municipalities where the killings took place, in the hopes of holding the responsible parties to account.
What is a wrongful death claim?
A wrongful death claim is a legal action that enables individuals to seek financial compensation when a family member’s death is the fault of another person or entity. The types of restitution vary from cases to case, but may include the following:
- Funeral costs
- Hospital bills
- Expenses related to medical care
- Compensation for pain and suffering or emotional distress
- Lost wages
These lawsuits can arise from any number of scenarios. Most commonly, they result from serious car accidents or instances of medical malpractice. Filing a suit against a government agency or municipality is somewhat rarer. However, as police shootings continue to be highly publicized events, and families learn more about their legal options, such cases may soon be seen more and more.
What’s happening in New Mexico?
The most recent such claim was filed in Bernalillo County in December, following an incident wherein the passenger of a stolen truck was shot by a deputy of the Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff contends that the death was justified – the officer feared for his life, he said, and the use of force was therefore permissible. Yet an inspection of the truck later revealed that none of the passengers had any weapons and, the lawsuit asserts, posed no threat to officers. The filing also states that the county, and the sheriff himself, “were negligent in the hiring, training, retention, and supervision” of the deputy in question.
Earlier in the year, a wrongful death suit was filed against the city of Santa Fe, after police officers fired 17 shots at a man with schizophrenia who died at the hospital from related injuries.
How will these cases play out?
The potential outcomes of these lawsuits are far from clear. Given the dangers inherent in their jobs, the courts often side with police officers, noting that they have just cause to use their weapons.
Nevertheless, in cases where the use of a firearm is not justified, a wrongful death claim is a potent means to pursue justice.