Wrongful Death Lawsuits Can Help to Obtain Justice in Tragic Circumstances
When our lives are ripped apart by this sudden death from somebody’s carelessness, negligence or wrongful act, the law provides relief to those left behind who must pick up the pieces. Parents, children, spouses of the person killed can get some financial recovery through a wrongful death lawsuit.
The underlying glue that holds our society together is that everybody owes a legal duty of ordinary and due care to each other. We each have a legal obligation of ordinary and due care to act responsibly and avoid doing anything that hurts other persons. The duty of ordinary care that we owe to others will depend of the facts and circumstances, as well at the relationship the individual may have with that person.
For instance, a physician owes his patients a duty to exercise the standard of medical care consistent with the practice of the medical profession. This medical standard of care would be much higher than the care required by emergency medical technician arriving at the scene of a car accident. If we own a business, we have a responsibility to maintain the property in a safe condition and with no hidden dangers to people we invite onto our property for business purposes.
And we all owe a general duty to each other not to purposely hurt another person, with a few strict exceptions such as self-defense. These duties are owed to each of us, and we have come to expect that drivers on the road will not drive drunk or cross into our lane of travel, or that a business owner will not ignore dangerous conditions in a store when we are shopping, or that the surgeon will perform the operation consistent with his or her training and the care we expect from similar surgeons.
Here are a few examples of cases you may have read about in the news. Cases in which celebrities or their families were harmed by the negligence, carelessness, or recklessness of others who did not follow that duty of ordinary care.
A Few Celebrity Wrongful Death Cases
The People of the State of California v Orenthal James Simpson
Punitive damages (to punish wrongdoers and discourage similar behavior) are seldom awarded, yet perhaps are awarded most frequently when somebody suffers grave injury or death because of another’s gross negligence or criminal act in states where punitive damages are allowed.
The infamous OJ Simpson case is one example where bereaved family members sued and won a judgment which included $25,000,000.00 in punitive damages, even after Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson was found not guilty in a criminal trial where he was charged with the murders of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
This tragic case began on June 10, 1994, when the body of Nicole Simpson was found along with another victim, her friend Ron Goldman. Nicole was football celebrity O.J. Simpson’s estranged wife, and there was a history of domestic violence in O.J. and Nicole’s relationship; they were separated at the time she was killed. Ron and Nicole had been brutally slain with multiple stab wounds to both victims including defensive wounds. Their bloody remains were found in the courtyard of Nicole’s Brentwood condominium.
- Evidence led police to O.J. Simpson’s door, where additional evidence, including:
- a bloody glove found on O.J.’s property matched the glove found at the crime scene,
- bloody footprints in O.J.’s Ford Bronco matched the crime scene footprints, and
- the fact that he did not have an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the killings.
All of this pointed to O.J. Simpson and led police to charge him with the murders.
In a widely publicized trial that dragged on for almost a year and came to resemble a courtroom carnival sideshow, Orenthal’s dream team lawyers won a judgment of not guilty and O.J. walked. Though there was an abundance of incriminating evidence pointing to Orenthal Simpson as the killer, his attorneys successfully argued that the evidence was tainted or mishandled. Also, since Nicole was Caucasian and Orenthal was African-American, the trial took place in a racially charged atmosphere in the wake of the post Rodney King Beating by Police in Los Angeles.
Dream team lawyer Johnny Cochran capitalized on the political aspect of the mixed couple’s ethnicity throughout the trial. It came out that Mark Fuhrman, the detective who had found a key piece of evidence at Orenthal’s residence (the mate to the bloody glove found at the crime scene), had given a series of racist interviews in the past, and the interviews were taped. When Cochran produced this evidence in court, it was used to discredit Fuhrman and show bias to help sway the jury in Simpson’s favor with the jury finding OJ Simpson not guilty of the murders.
Fredric and Kimberly Goldman v Orenthal James Simpson
The not guilty verdict was devastating for the families of the victims, who were sure that Orenthal Simpson was the killer. However, their lawyers knew that the criminal court’s finding of not guilty did not mean the civil courts were closed to them. Turning to civil litigation for a measure of justice, Ron Goldman’s father, Fred Goldman, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson in civil court. The complaint listed Ron’s father and his sister Kimberly as plaintiffs.
Ron’s mother, Sharon Rufo, also filed a separate wrongful death suit. Finally Nicole’s estate filed a survival suit on behalf of Orenthal and Nicole’s children, Justin and Sydney Simpson. A Survival suit is permitted in California law, with the plaintiff(s) eligible for punitive damages. Nicole’s parents the Browns did not want to put the children through a wrongful death lawsuit. All three lawsuits were combined into one trial.
The Civil jury heard evidence that was excluded in the criminal trial, and Orenthal, who did not have to testify at his criminal trial, was subpoenaed and forced to testify at a deposition and the trial. Also, new evidence against Orenthal Simpson surfaced. Bloody footprints made by size 12 Bruno Magli driving shoes were found at the crime scene and in Orenthal’s Ford Bronco on the night of the killings. O.J. denied he owned or ever would wear the Bruno Magli shoes because he found them ugly. However, he’d been photographed wearing the same kind of shoes at a Buffalo Bills football game nine months before the murders.
FBI expert Special Agent William Bodziak analyzed the picture against police evidence and declared the shoes O.J. wore in the photo to be the same kind of shoes that left the bloody footprints. The driving shoes were expensive, and Bodziak established through research that, for that particular size, only 299 pairs had been sold in the US. The photo did not surface until after the criminal trial, and O.J. continued to deny that he ever wore the “ugly assed shoes” in his deposition, although confronted with the picture. However, the jury did not believe him, and they found him liable for Ron’s and Nicole’s brutal deaths.
Burden of Proof in a Civil Case
You may be wondering how this could happen. First, Orenthal’s attorney was not allowed to play the race card in civil court, where Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki ruled that allegations that the police murder investigation was influenced by a racist agenda were “inflammatory and speculative.”
Finally, in a civil case, the plaintiff must prove the case, but the standard of proof is far lower than in a criminal trial. In a criminal trial the standard of proof is the highest of all–beyond a reasonable doubt. Some compare this to nearly 98%. But in civil trials, the standard is lower – “more likely than not” or a preponderance standard. The civil jury was able to find O.J. Simpson liable in a civil court lawsuit where the burden of proof is simply more likely than not. It was more likely than not that O.J. Simpson killed Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.
Civil Suit Damages: OJ was Financially Ruined
On February 10, 2007, less than 3 years after the murders, a civil jury in Santa Monica, California awarded the Goldmans and O.J.’s children who were living with Nicole’s parents, twenty-five million dollars in punitive damages, along with the 8.5 million dollars awarded to the Goldman family (Fred, Kimberly and Sharon) the prior week.
The plaintiffs have not been able to collect much of the money awarded them from the judgments. They were not allowed to touch his football pension to satisfy this judgment, and while prior to the slayings of Ron and Nicole, O.J. Simpson was worth around 11 million dollars, O.J. was comparatively broke after hiring the expensive dream team lawyers to defend him from the criminal charges.
O.J. Simpson: If I Did It
Orenthal Simpson later arranged to have a book written about the murders and in an attempt to make some money. He was purportedly paid $600,000.00 to claim that he wrote the book, written by ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves, and to give an interview. If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer is supposed to be a description of the murders as they would have occurred if Orenthal had committed them, among other things.
The book was seen as a transparent ploy to cash in on the tragedy and also an attempt to portray O.J. as a hapless victim of Nicole’s unstable behavior. Victims’ families successfully hindered distribution, but a few copies of the first version got out and were met with appropriate scorn by reviewers. Because of the civil judgment, the Goldmans were awarded the rights to the book by a Florida bankruptcy court, changed the book’s appearance, and added their own commentary.
20 Years later: Interview with Kim Goldman
Twenty years after the murders, CNBC interviewed Ron Goldman’s sister, Kimberly Goldman. Kim said that she and her father are moving forward with their lives, a day at a time. The horrific murder of her beloved brother and the killer’s subsequent acquittal left its mark on her life, and she sees their victory in civil court as both vindication and punishment. Kimberly and her father Fred have diligently monitored O.J.’s assets, determined to enforce the judgment, not because they would like to profit from Ron’s death, but because they do not want Orenthal Simpson to get away with murder and enjoy a prosperous life.
The plaintiffs never did recover much money from O.J., but for Kimberly it’s not about the money. In the interview Kim said, “It’s incredibly empowering as a victim and a survivor to be able to win in a civil system.”
Nevada Jury Found OJ Simpson Guilty of Multiple Crimes
Most recently, O.J. Simpson was caught trying to rob two sports memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room, purportedly to get back collector’s items that belonged to him. The Nevada jury wasn’t buying his story either, and he was convicted of multiple charges, including:
- Conspiracy to Commit Kidnapping;
- Conspiracy to Commit Robbery;
- Burglary while in Possession of a Deadly Weapon;
- 2 counts of 1st Degree Kidnapping with Use of a Deadly Weapon;
- 2 Counts of Robbery with Use of a Deadly Weapon;
- 2 Counts of Assault with a Deadly Weapon;
- 2 Counts of Coercion with a Deadly Weapon; and
- Conspiracy to Commit a Crime.
O.J. was convicted of all 12 charges, and sentenced to 9 to 33 years in Nevada State Prison. His co-conspirators, who turned evidence against him, were allowed to walk with probation and comparatively light sentences. Apparently O.J. had been trying to make money on the black market that he could hide from the Goldman’s attorneys, by signing and selling a variety of sports junk. This attempt to evade the civil judgment and make money backfired, and he is now in prison where many people, including the families of the murder victims, think he belongs.
Duckett v CNN, Nancy Grace
In November 2006 the family of Melinda Duckett, a young woman who killed herself after agreeing to do a taped interview with Nancy Grace, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CNN and Nancy Grace. Melinda killed herself with a shotgun blast the day after giving an interview for the talk show. Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor, grilled her about the disappearance of her two-year-old son, missing for two weeks, in a recording which would be broadcast on TV.
The complaint alleged Fraudulent Misrepresentation and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, which led to the young woman’s suicide. According to the complaint, CNN employee Nancy Grace intentionally lured Melinda Duckett onto the show by telling her that the interview would help her to find her missing son by publicizing his abduction. The complaint further charged that the newscaster’s real intention was to accuse Melinda Duckett on the show, interrogating her about the boy’s disappearance and implying that the distraught mother killed her own son.
The complaint went on to say that after Nancy Grace and her crew learned of the young woman’s suicide, they chose to air the show to improve their ratings and thereby profit from the tragedy. Melinda’s family, her parents and her minor sibling, further stated in their complaint that they have suffered harassment from the community after Nancy Grace aired the show, with the minor requiring therapy because of the public airing of the interview. The complaint said that Nancy Grace and CNN aired the interview repeatedly and were continuing to air it, and asked for an injunction against CNN to stop the network from further airing the interview and profiting off of the young woman’s suicide.
The complaint alleged that the Nancy Grace show had been soliciting funds from the public to find the missing boy, and requested the court to monitor any money received, and to give an accounting of how much money was received by the Nancy Grace show and how the funds were disbursed, seeking to prevent the defendants from profiting further off the tragedy.
Finally, the complaint alleged that Nancy Grace misappropriated Melinda Duckett’s image which Melinda did not give consent for them to use, in order to profit from their repeated airings of the interview and increase their ratings.
The family asked for $15,000 in damages, and for punitive damages. The Florida court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the case was set for trial. Four years later and just weeks before the trial was scheduled to go forward Grace settled with the family for $200,000.00, put into a trust fund dedicated to finding the still missing child.
Over the years Nancy Grace has been accused of numerous instances of irresponsible, sensationalistic and mean-spirited journalism targeted more to driving up ratings than to finding the truth. At least in this case, a measure of justice was found by the family with Nancy Grace and CNN being held accountable through civil litigation.
Phil and Brynn Hartman
Phil Hartman was a multi-talented artist, working in Hollywood in multiple venues during his career. He was a low-key guy who is perhaps best remembered for his roles on Saturday Night Live, News Radio, and The Simpsons. Starting his career as a graphic artist, he designed album covers for well-known bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Poco. He wrote scripts for TV comedy shows and movies and won numerous awards for his comedy acting and writing. Most significantly, he was well liked by his colleagues, which is no small achievement in the entertainment business. Maybe being a nice guy gave him the insight into bad behavior which he capitalized on in his writing and acting, mostly portraying contemptible characters in a way we could all relate to and laugh at. People who knew him agreed he was the last person anybody would expect to hear about as the victim of a murder-suicide.
Brynn Hartman, Phil’s third wife, suffered from low self-esteem and depression but friends described her as a loving wife and mother despite her mood swings. She struggled with alcohol and cocaine, maintaining a substance-free lifestyle most of the time but occasionally sliding back into active use. She had relapsed on the night of May 27, 1998, and then got into an argument with her husband Phil after returning home from an evening out with a friend.
A coping skill Phil Hartman had developed was to distance himself, at least until both parties could calm down, and so that night he did what he often did–he went to bed hoping that things would be better in the morning. Shortly after he fell asleep Brynn shot him three times with a .38 handgun and then, after alerting friends and the police, a few hours later she laid down next to her husband’s body and shot herself. Brynn and Phil Hartman left two children.
Brynn Hartman’s autopsy results showed the presence of three substances:
- Cocaine; and
The drug Sertraline, brand name Zoloft was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991 to treat major depression. It was later approved to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks. Two side effects of this drug are suicidal behavior and aggression and the FDA now includes a black label warning about these side effects.
A year after the couple’s deaths Gregor Omdahl, Brynn’s brother and executor of the couple’s estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate against Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Zoloft, and Arthur Zorosky, the psychiatrist who gave Brynn Zoloft despite her history of substance abuse, and without monitoring her reaction to the drug. The lawsuit alleged that when Brynn complained of side effects to Zorosky he recommended taking half the dosage. Pfizer settled with Omdahl for an undisclosed amount.
In the years since Brynn and Phil’s deaths, Zoloft has been attributed as the cause of many deaths. There have been numerous lawsuits filed against Pfizer over Zoloft. Allegations regarding Zoloft include failure to warn that Zoloft:
- Causes birth defects;
- Causes violent behavior including suicide;
- Is no more effective to treat the ailments it’s approved/prescribed for than a placebo.
In 2009 Pfizer settled with the United States Government for 2.3 Billion dollars–a record amount for a pharmaceutical company’s unlawful behavior. The settlement was for numerous offenses connected to several drugs the company manufactures and promotes. The charges against Pfizer included Misbranding (bribing doctors to prescribe a drug for uses not approved by FDA) and Medical Fraud.
Joan Rivers Death
Joan Rivers was a well-loved comedienne who, as she liked to say, said aloud what everybody else was thinking. She was the first woman to host a late-night TV talk show. For years, she was the substitute host of The Tonight Show, then got her own late-night talk show, The Late Show with Joan Rivers. Later she hosted a daytime show, The Joan Rivers Show, for which she won an Emmy (for outstanding talk show host). Most recently she co-hosted The Fashion Police, a celebrity fashion show, and starred in a reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? with her daughter.
What Happened During Joan Rivers Surgery
Fans and detractors alike agreed that Joan would joke about anything. She joked about her own death during a stand-up comedy routine on the night before August 28, 2014, the day she checked herself into the Yorkville Medical Clinic in New York for what was supposed to be a routine upper endoscopy (a procedure where they insert a tiny camera via a small tube down your throat to examine your upper digestive system). Joan checked into the clinic to have the endoscopy to find out why her voice was hoarse. She died a few days later, on September 4.
Before doing the procedure Joan authorized the doctors to do, one of the doctors, Dr. Gwen Korovin, who was not authorized to practice medicine at the Yorktown Clinic, performed a procedure Joan had not consented to, a laryngoscopy (exam of the voice box with mirrors or a flexible scope). It was Korovin’s idea to initiate the laryngoscopy.
During this unauthorized procedure, they had difficulty maintaining Joan’s oxygen level. When they then performed the endoscopy her oxygen level dropped again, but instead of monitoring her vital signs, oxygen level, and condition, the doctors were busy clowning around and taking selfies with Joan while she was unconscious.
Another physician, Dr, Renuka Bankulla (previously sued for a wrongful death; settled in 2005), warned Korovin that the procedure might compromise Joan’s airway, yet failed to stop her from performing the unauthorized procedure. When they finally noticed her vital signs had dropped and she wasn’t getting enough oxygen, one of the doctors ordered a tracheotomy (incision in the windpipe to restore breathing) but this procedure was not performed.
Why Joan Rivers Died
Basically, Joan Rivers’ surgeons failed to monitor her condition, performed an unauthorized procedure and during the procedure while her vital signs began to drop they were clowning and taking pictures. Dr. Lawrence Cohen, then medical director of the clinic (since resigned), told Bankulla she was “being paranoid” when she objected to the unauthorized procedure. He was the one who snapped photos of Korovin doing the unauthorized procedure and also asked another doctor to take a selfie of him and Joan when she was unconscious.
During the subsequent investigation, it was revealed that doctors gave her over twice the safe dosage of the anesthetic Propocol. It was also revealed they had neglected to weigh her first to see how much should be administered. The investigation further revealed that the Yorkville Endoscopy Clinic anesthesiologist later changed the records to reflect a lower dosage, from 300 milligrams that were initially recorded to 120 milligrams.
Joan went into a coma during the botched procedure and died at Cedars-Sinai hospital a week later. Melissa signed the papers to take her mother off life support, in keeping with her living will.
The medical examiner’s office reported that Joan Rivers died from “anoxic encephalopathy due to hypoxic arrest.”
In plain English, Joan Rivers, the smart and well-loved comedienne, died of brain damage from lack of oxygen during what was supposed to be a routine medical procedure where the attending physicians maintained a cavalier and disrespectful attitude towards her person, her rights, and her physical safety.
Yorkville Medical Clinic and Attending Doctors Sued for Malpractice
In January 2015 Joan Rivers’ estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Yorkville Endoscopy Clinic and the doctors responsible for Joan’s death. The lawsuit alleged that the doctors were “reckless, grossly negligent and wanton”. They were not adequately trained to deal with the medical crisis that they created by performing an unauthorized procedure and administering an overdose of anesthetic.
Joan Rivers’ daughter Melissa said, “The level of medical mismanagement, incompetency, disrespect and outrageous behavior is shocking and frankly, almost incomprehensible.” Speaking of her reason for filing the lawsuit Melissa said, “What ultimately guided me was my unwavering belief that no family should ever have to go through what my mother, [my son] Cooper and I have been through.”
What happened to Joan Rivers is public knowledge because she was a well-loved TV personality. The Joan Rivers cover up where the clinic changed the medical records is not uncommon. Unfortunately, medical malpractice is out of control in the United States. Statistics show that you are 30 times more likely to die from medical malpractice than from a gunshot.
The family settled for an undisclosed amount in May 2016, and the doctors admitted responsibility for Joan’s death.
Attorneys for Civil Lawsuits
If you suspect your loved one’s death was caused by negligence or a criminal act, you may have grounds to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Isaacs & Isaacs wrongful death lawyers can answer your questions about a possible lawsuit or settlement and help you to know what to do next.