By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew Grossman
The quest for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner did not end with the decisions of grand juries not to indict the police officers whose actions led to those men’s deaths. Those frustrated by the grand juries’ dispositions can take comfort in knowing that victims of police violence, as well as their families, can get their day in court.
The family of Garner, who died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a New York police officer, has already announced plans to sue the officer and the city for $75 million. Michael Brown’s family has not yet said whether they intend to bring a lawsuit against former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson or the city, but their lawyer has indicated the possibility is being considered.
These suits may succeed where criminal charges failed. To protect against wrongful conviction, criminal charges must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest standard in law. By contrast, civil plaintiffs need convince a jury only that their claims are supported by a “preponderance of the evidence” — a hair more than 50 percent.
Both families could bring claims for wrongful death, arguing that the officers failed to exercise appropriate care in the confrontations that resulted in the deaths of their family members. Such a claim by Garner’s family would be particularly strong, given that the New York Police Department long ago banned chokeholds precisely to prevent choking-related deaths. As for Brown, the circumstances of his death are less clear at this time, but a trial would provide an opportunity for all the facts to come out. If the “hands-up-don’t-shoot” narrative is correct, the Brown family should be able to prevail.