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Can I Sue for a Severe Injury or a Family Member’s Death Resulting from the Negligent Actions of a Government Official?

If you or a loved one have suffered serious injuries or are facing the sudden loss of a family member stemming from the negligent actions of a government official (e.g., police or law enforcement officer, prison guard, school administrator, teacher, coach), you may be considering whether to bring a lawsuit against the responsible parties.

In recent years, many cases involving police brutality and excessive force have made the headlines.

Last year, a couple filed a civil rights action (e.g., a Section 1983 lawsuit) against the City of Phoenix when officers allegedly used excessive force and threatened to shoot them. Dravon Ames and his fiancée Lesha Harper, who was pregnant at the time, were with their daughters (a one-year-old and a four-year-old) when police suddenly stopped them after leaving a store. When Phoenix police reached the family, an officer took hold of Ames, pushed him to the pavement, and arrested him. Ames was later kicked and punched in the back. The family is now seeking $10 million in reparations for the injuries and threats.

In 2015, Freddie Gray, who was 25 years old at the time, died from severe neck injuries he suffered as a passenger in the back of a police van. Gray was handcuffed and not secured with a seatbelt. Five months after Gray’s death, his family settled with the City of Baltimore for $6.4 million. That same year, the family of Walter Scott brought an action against the City of North Charleston when an officer shot Scott in the back and killed him. His family settled with the city for $6.5 million.

These cases show that damages are recoverable in Section 1983 lawsuits. However, Section 1983 lawsuits are extremely complicated, and past results do not guarantee any future outcome. Whether you’ve already made up your mind to pursue a claim or want to gather additional information before making the decision, our lawyers can answer your questions and explain your legal options. For more information, contact the attorneys at the Terry Bryant law firm by calling 713-973-8888 or (800) 444-5000.

How Can a Section 1983 Lawsuit Protect Your Rights?

A Section 1983 claim comes from the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1983). It gives victims an avenue to file lawsuits for civil rights violations and wrongful deaths resulting from police misconduct and excessive force, for example. Section 1983 lawsuits are not your typical lawsuits, and there are very few personal injury lawyers comfortable handling them. Unlike the negligent defendant in a more traditional personal injury matter, government officials are covered by a powerful veil that generally protects them from injured parties bringing lawsuits against them, with few exceptions. This protection is referred to as “immunity.”

Clearing the First Hurdle: Qualified Immunity

There are two types of immunity: absolute and qualified immunity. Only a limited group of individuals enjoy the protections of absolute immunity, such as the president, legislators (immune for actions taken within the scope of legislative authority), or judges carrying out official judicial duties.

Police and law enforcement officers, along with other officials, enjoy qualified immunity, which means that they can’t be sued when performing official duties unless they violate “clearly established” constitutional rights or act in a grossly unreasonable fashion.

The Burden of Proof Falls Upon the Victim

When an injured party decides to bring a lawsuit against a government official, such as a police officer, the injured party has the burden to prove the elements of his or her case with facts, evidence, and legal proof. To be successful, the victim must prove by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the offending conduct occurred under color of state law, and (2) that this conduct deprived the plaintiff of the rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed under federal law or the U.S. Constitution. However, when faced with a Section 1983 lawsuit, the law enforcement officer and other officials will generally try to get out of it by raising the affirmative defense of “qualified immunity.”

Once the government official invokes the qualified immunity defense, the burden will shift to the victim.

It will be the victim’s duty to defeat the defense by using analogous cases or proving the conduct was so plainly egregious that no reasonable police officer could have thought he or she was acting lawfully.

If the constitutional right the officer is accused of violating was not “clearly established under federal law” when the right was allegedly infringed, the victim would not be able to meet his or her burden, and the government official will escape liability through the qualified immunity defense.

Establishing that a right was “clearly established” at the time it was violated is a difficult hurdle that the victim will have to overcome. If the government official is denied immunity, that individual will be allowed to appeal that initial decision before trial.

I Overcame Qualified Immunity. Now What?

If you overcome the government’s defense of qualified immunity, it does not guarantee that you will win your case. Overcoming qualified immunity means that your case can now proceed and be decided on the merits before a judge and/or a jury.

If qualified immunity is denied from the outset, and the government decides to appeal that decision, it can serve as a double-edged sword for the victim. On the one hand, this appeal process will give the government a considerable amount of time to continue the fight, during which the victim can run out of resources and be forced to drop their case. On the other hand, it will also mean that the government’s costs to continue defending against the lawsuit will be increasing, and this could help prompt settlement offers before going to trial – as we saw in the cases above.

What Type of Evidence Will I Need to Prove My Section 1983 Claim?

The best type of evidence that you can present to prove your case often includes video footage and photographs of the government official’s negligent act. The one similarity among many recent high-profile cases is video footage of the negligent act. Videos often come from bystanders in the right place at the right time, ready to document the encounters.

Take the example of 37-year-old Abdul Salaam, who filed a civil lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department for injuries he suffered at the hands of several police officers. Once the officers had approached Salaam’s car, as Salaam was rolling down his window, they yanked him out. The officers then dragged him across the ground while his son watched, traumatized, from the car. Salaam suffered facial, neck, and shoulder injuries. Several neighbors on the street took footage of the events with their cellphones. At trial, Salaam’s attorney told the jury that they would see the videos, and asked them to pay close attention. The jury came back with a verdict of $70,000 for Salaam. Video footage can go a long way toward proving your case before a jury.

Contact One of Our Attorneys at Terry Bryant Today

If you or a loved one have suffered serious injuries due to police brutality or excessive force, or have had a family member killed at the hands of law enforcement, one of our attorneys at Terry Bryant can explain your legal options. To learn more about Section 1983 claims and discuss whether you have a potential Section 1983 claim to bring against the government official, call our Houston law firm at 713-973-8888 or (800) 444-5000 for a free, no-obligation consultation. You have nothing to lose.

Disclaimer: This information is for general information only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice. Prior case results do not guarantee a similar outcome.