Liable . . . Wrongful death cases soar

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

... Continued from frontpage

That figure, he points out, is since the killings occurred, not since the criminal and civil verdicts were rendered. Following last month's damages award, he expects an even bigger increase in civil litigation by victims.

A Santa Monica jury ordered Simpson to pay the Goldman family $8.5 million in compensatory damages and another $25 million in punitive damages to Goldman's parents and the estate of Nicole Simpson. The punitive damages award set a record in California, although there have been larger awards elsewhere.

Civil litigation by victims already was on the upswing, said Nelson, who directs the Tarrington Victims' Litigation Project at the center, a non-profit advocacy organization for crime victims.

Between 1990 and 1995, the number of wrongful death suits reaching the appellate courts grew by 175 percent.

In California in the last 10 years, there were only five wrongful death verdicts against defendants accused of homicide.

There also was a dramatic increase in cases filed for compensation for crimes other than wrongful death, such as incest, assault and domestic abuse.

In addition to the Simpson case, several other high-profile matters have spurred the public's interest. New York City subway gunman Bernhard Goetz, acquitted in criminal court, lost a $43 million civil case to one of four blacks he shot. Mike Tyson settled a civil lawsuit with the beauty queen he raped, in addition to serving a prison sentence. Claus von Bulow, convicted and then acquitted of trying to kill his socialite wife, settled a $56 million civil lawsuit filed by her children by renouncing all claims to her fortune and agreeing to a divorce.

In addition to the attention given these cases, litigation by victims has increased as a result of the growing strength of the victims rights movement, which has captured the attention of the public, elected officials and the media. As a result, Nelson said, victims are aware they have other options than a criminal proceeding.

The victim center does not track whether defendants in civil cases were criminally convicted or acquitted, nor how often the plaintiff collects damages.

But "more often than not," Nelson said, "these cases settle. Juries, as the country learned in the Simpson case, are very sympathetic to victims."

Nelson also said the idea that defendants, particularly those convicted of a crime, have no assets is somewhat of a myth. And although most plaintiffs do not collect large amounts of money, victims who have medical expenses or suffer lost wages or earning power certainly benefit from compensation.

But rarely are civil cases brought purely for monetary reasons, Nelson said. "Even when there has been a conviction, victims are really looking for a sense of personal justice.

"I wouldn't call it vengeance," he added. "Victims want to be able to participate in the process instead of being part of the evidence. They're in the driver's seat in a civil case. The jury is going to say, this offender is directly accountable to you and not to some nebulous entity like the state or the people."

Fred Goldman said throughout the four-month civil trial that his lawsuit was not about money, and following the verdict, he offered to forego the damage award if Simpson would confess to the double murder.

"All I ever wanted is justice," Goldman said. "It's never been an issue about money."

Simpson rejected the offer.

The legal profession is beginning to realize that civil litigation by victims is a viable area of practice. "It has an interesting twist to it, too," says Nelson. "Many litigators find this practice to be incredibly reward. They like to give something back."