A Civil Suit Could Make Zimmerman Pay — or Could Backfire

In the end, "Stand your ground" played a small role in George Zimmerman's acquittal, but it could pose a big risk to Trayvon Martin's family if they pursue a civil trial

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The jury weighing criminal charges against George Zimmerman has spoken, but the case may not be over — and that jury might not be the only jury. Trayvon Martin’s family is considering filing a wrongful-death civil suit against Zimmerman, which could produce a very different result. But it could also backfire.

Hollywood is not the only industry that believes in sequels. When criminal trials end — whether with a conviction or an acquittal — the victims are still free to sue for money damages. Most famously, after O.J. Simpson beat the murder charges against him, the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman sued him and won $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. (Whether the families were able to collect that money is a different story.)

(MORE: Viewpoint: Was Zimmerman Telling the Truth?)

A lawyer for Martin’s family put a civil lawsuit squarely on the table in a postverdict appearance on ABC’s This Week. “They are certainly going to look at that as an option,” Benjamin Crump said. “They deeply want a sense of justice.” The family has already received a settlement from a wrongful-death claim they made against the homeowners’ association of the subdivision where the shooting occurred, perhaps for more than $1 million. (The Department of Justice is also, separately, considering whether to bring federal hate-crime charges against Zimmerman.)

There are some good reasons to believe a civil suit could win, even after prosecutors struck out. Civil trials have a lower standard of proof than criminal trials. Instead of having to establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” — a particularly hard threshold to meet in a homicide case with few witnesses and little hard physical evidence — in a civil case, the Martin family would only have to prove it was more likely than not that Zimmerman’s negligence caused Martin’s death.

There would also be a new jury — perhaps one chosen in a different jurisdiction. Some trial watchers thought the jury that heard Zimmerman’s case was a good one for the defense — not least because it was nearly all white. The next jury might see the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin very differently. Another big difference: in a civil case, Zimmerman would likely have to testify. He chose not to take the stand in the criminal case — a right protected by the Fifth Amendment — and that seems to have been a smart move. At a civil trial, lawyers could cross-examine Zimmerman about the details, and inconsistencies, of his account of the shooting.

But for all of the potential upside, there would also be risks for Martin’s family in suing. First, while money may not be their primary motivation, Zimmerman does not seem to have millions of dollars lying around to pay a civil-damages award. There have been widespread predictions that in the next few years he will be richly rewarded with book deals and speaking fees — this is America, after all — but he likely also has some big legal bills to pay.

The bigger threat to Martin’s family would be Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, which wound up playing a small role in the criminal trial. Under the law, if Martin’s family sued, Zimmerman would be entitled to a hearing at which he would be given a chance to show that he used deadly force only because he was in reasonable fear of death or serious injury. He skipped that step before the criminal trial, but he would no doubt take it if he were sued. And if Zimmerman won his “Stand your ground” hearing, he would not only get the civil suit thrown out, but the law also says that whoever sued him would have to pay him attorneys fees, expenses and compensation for any loss of income resulting from the proceedings. That would be a bitter pill for the family to swallow: the man who shot their son to death beating the criminal charges, getting the civil lawsuit dismissed — and then presenting them with a bill.

MORE: I Am Still Trayvon Martin