Wrongful Death Cases Involving Famous Celebrities and Big Businesses

Wrongful Death Cases Involving Celebrities and Big BusinessesWhat do O. J. Simpson, Nancy Grace, Robert Blake and Dr. Conrad Murray have in common?

All were at the center of highly publicized wrongful death cases. In each instance, except Dr. Murray’s, the individuals were famous celebrities alleged to have caused a wrongful death or deaths.

Wrongful death is a civil claim that death(s) was caused by negligence, malpractice, or an unlawful act, intentional or unintentional.

Wrongful death is a type of personal injury claim brought to recover compensation against the party responsible for causing the death. The claim may be brought against an individual, multiple people, or nonpersons like a corporation or public agencies including a city or state, a city jail, a state prison, a state or private hospital, a public company or a nursing home.

Celebrity Wrongful Death Cases

O.J. Simpson, many may recall, was the former NFL football player, sports broadcaster and actor who was accused of the 1994 double-murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Simpson was acquitted of all criminal charges in a trial that became a national obsession. Nicole and Ron’s surviving family members sued the sports celebrity in civil court for wrongful death and Simpson was ordered to pay $35 million – which was reportedly never recovered by the families. Simpson’s case was an example of one in which the action taken was not mutually exclusive. Simpson was both criminally prosecuted by the state of California and separately sued in civil court in a wrongful death action. In the latter case, the accused does not go to prison, but there can be a recompense of sorts if the defendant is found guilty.

In the case of companies that have caused death or fatal injury, the civil action of wrongful death is the only recourse for family members. On this premise tobacco companies have been sued for wrongful deaths of customers.

Talk show host Nancy Grace was sued in 2006 for intentionally inflicting emotional distress that allegedly caused the wrongful death of a young mother she interviewed for her show concerning the disappearance of the woman’s two-year-old child. The woman’s family believed that 21-year-old Melinda Duckett shot herself before Grace’s pre-recorded show was aired because Grace had insinuated in her manner of questioning that Duckett was at fault in the matter of the missing boy. Duckett had told authorities intruders broke into her home.

The case was settled in 2010 for $200,000. The boy, Trenton Duckett, has never been found. A claim of intentionally inflicting distress is relatively new to wrongful death law with the first case in California prosecuted in 1960.

Robert Blake, a movie actor and star of the 1970s TV show Baretta, was accused of murdering his wife of one year, Bonnie Lee Bakley in 2001. She was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head. He was acquitted of the crimes of murder with special circumstances, solicitation of murder and murder conspiracy in 2005. But, like O.J., he was found liable for wrongful death in a later civil case in which he was ordered to pay $30 million in restitution.

In 2010, Joe Jackson, the father of pop star Michael Jackson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dr. Conrad Murray charging Dr. Murray, who was Michael Jackson’s private physician at the time of his death, administered frequent doses of the anesthetic Propofol to treat the singer’s chronic insomnia. The prescription medication, not approved as a sleeping aid, was given in unusually large doses and reportedly caused Jackson’s death in 2009. Murray was found not guilty of the wrongful death charge but reportedly was broke and deeply in debt following the lawsuit. AEG Live was also sued by Jackson’s mother and some of his siblings for negligently hiring and supervising the physician.

Many Types of Wrongful Death

Many people think of wrongful death lawsuits as cases that result after a traffic accident where one driver clearly caused a fatal crash, but there are many other types of wrongful death claims including medical malpractice; slip and fall injuries; dog bite fatalities; nursing home abuse; work-related accidents and explosions; deaths caused by defective products, vehicles, or dangerous roadways; exposure to toxic materials; and death caused by defective drugs. Deaths from motor vehicle accidents, slip and fall fatalities and workplace accidents are among the leading causes of unintentional death, according to the 2005 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

There are various possible wrongful death claims based on individual state laws. For example, in Oregon, death resulting from breast implantation is a wrongful death action and the statute of limitations (time to file a case) is three years.

Prescription Drugs and Celebrity

Another famous wrongful death case was filed by a family member of Brynn Hartman, a celebrity spouse who shot and killed her husband, Saturday Night Live actor Phil Hartman, then took her own life in 1998. Her brother sued Pfizer Pharmaceuticals who had prescribed Brynn the anti-depressant Zoloft for panic attacks. The lawsuit charged that the popular drug drove Brynn to insanity and led her to commit the shootings. The case was settled out of court but Zoloft was again the subject of various product liability lawsuits alleging the drug has caused birth defects.

Other wrongful death cases have been filed regarding the antidepressants Paxil and Prozac in cases of homicide and suicide. Wrongful death claims are common against large drug companies for allegedly producing and marketing unsafe drugs or for not fully disclosing all potentially dangerous side effects of a particular drug.

Suing a Nonperson

Although the name of Trayvon Martin was not famous before the Florida teenager was shot and killed by the head of a neighborhood watch in 2012, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by his family after George Zimmerman was acquitted of criminal charges in the death. Trayvon’s family sued the homeowner’s association in Sanford, Florida where he was killed. He had been in the area that night visiting his father. The family charged the association was negligent in appointing Zimmerman as head of the watch. The case settled in excess of $1 million.

Ford Pinto Wrongful Death Cases

Wrongful death has also resulted in other product liability cases, the most famous of which is probably the Ford Pinto cases of the 1970’s.

It was found that even the slightest rear-end collision that involved the rear gas tank of the popular economy car, the Pinto, would cause the tank to rupture and result in a serious explosion. While Ford ultimately recalled all vehicles affected, this did not occur before many people using these vehicles lost their lives. The most reprehensible discovery in the case was that Ford executives knew of the defects but had not taken appropriate action. It was reported that during a cost/benefit analysis examination of whether to modify the Pinto’s design, one Ford executive valued a human life at $200,000.

More recently, defective Japanese-made Takata airbags, installed on many models of cars, have led to wrongful death cases. These airbags can explode and send metal fragments flying at motorists. The company reportedly knew about the defects more than a decade before recalls were made.

The origin of wrongful death liability can be traced as far back as 1846 when Parliament began to allow claims for damages by relatives of deceased persons. Previously, injured persons could seek amends from those liable, but the dead had no recourse because they obviously could not take legal action for the wrongs done to them.

Who May File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Ohio law requires that a personal representative be appointed on behalf of the deceased’s estate. This person acts on behalf of the estate and is given authority by the court to file suit to recover damages. There are basically two types of wrongful death actions:

• A claim brought to recover damages on behalf of the estate (like funeral and health care expenses, pain and suffering (if it can be proved), and the deceased’s lost future net earnings).

• A lawsuit to recover damages for each surviving beneficiary. The aim is to achieve compensation for the survivors as if the decedent had continued to be there for them providing support and companionship. These might include separate damages for the destruction of the marital relationship caused by the death, loss of society of the decedent, loss of prospective inheritance, mental anguish incurred by the surviving spouse and others. Each surviving dependent child may recover separate damages for the loss of the parent-child relationship.

Statute of Limitations

A wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within a certain period of time. This statute of limitations is generally two years from “when the cause of action arises.” But the time period may begin to run when the person’s cause of death is discovered or should have been, or upon discovery of the defendant’s negligent conduct. There also different rules in Ohio concerning product liability cases.

A wrongful death case must either be settled or filed within the court in the time specified or it will no longer be valid. It is not advisable to wait until the statute of limitations is about to expire to file suit or a claim. There is usually much involved in investigating a case of this type and promptness in acting can dramatically increase the chance that the case will be successful.

Not every wrongful death case captures the headlines but each one is very important to surviving family members. A tragic and unexpected loss can change the direction of a family’s life and can cause severe emotional pain in addition to substantial financial losses.

These types of cases generally require complicated and cumbersome investigations. Witness statements must often be gathered and testimony obtained from various types of experts. The attorney may need a private autopsy or accident reconstruction. For these reasons it is advisable to speak with someone who has significant legal experience and the necessary resources and skills to pursue a case to trial if necessary. Our law firm, Slater & Zurz LLP, has the wrongful death attorneys you need.

Contact our law firm at any time including weekends, evenings and holidays by calling 1-888-459-0765, chatting with one of our 24-hour live chat representatives or sending us a website message. Set up a free and private initial consultation with us so we can help you determine what direction you should go if faced with the situation of a sudden/unexpected death caused by the negligence, carelessness, or misconduct of another person.

You may also want to ask for our FREE book, A Wrongful Death in Ohio: Actions Families Can Take After the Wrongful Death of a Loved One.

This informative book will explain various types of wrongful deaths including wrongful death from an auto accident, wrongful death of a child, wrongful death due to a defective product and wrongful death from explosions and others. You will learn how wrongful death cases are litigated, the meaning of loss of consortium and how it factors into a wrongful death case, and the losses and damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death claim.

Don’t hesitate to write down any questions you have as you study the material in the book and don’t hesitate to call us if you think you may have a valid case. The only thing at stake is the time it will take you to let us hear you tell your story.

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