George Zimmerman Civil Lawsuit: What That Means In Plain English

In light of Saturday’s verdict, second-degree murder and manslaughter are off the table for George Zimmerman. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be charged in causing Trayvon Martin’s death. The next legal option for the Martin family is to file a civil suit against Zimmerman for Trayvon’s “wrongful death.”

What is a civil suit?

The difference between a civil suit and a criminal case is mainly one of punishment. Crimes are acts against the state, and are therefore punishable by jail time. This is the reason state prosecutors are always the plaintiff in these cases. Private parties, on the other hand, bring civil suits before a court. Yet instead of facing jail time, civil suit defendants oftentimes pay monetary damages after lost suits.

The Martin Family is investigating whether they can file the suit outside of Sanford, Florida, where Zimmerman's trial was held. 

What is wrongful death?

Wrongful death is a claim that makes someone liable for the death of another. It is impossible for the deceased to file the claim themselves, so this loophole allows families of the deceased to do so in their name.

The most famous wrongful death case to use as a frame of reference is probably O.J. Simpson. Ever wonder why he’s not rich anymore? Simpson won the murder case. He was acquitted. He got to go home. But in 1997, a California court found Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.  He was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages to his ex-wife’s family.

A wrongful death suit is easier to prove than a murder. While criminal court cases must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civil lawsuits require less “proof” per se. They are brought to courts because of “the preponderance of the evidence,” meaning, “it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way.” 

Then what is a civil rights lawsuit?

A civil rights lawsuit is just a type of civil suit. The plaintiffs, in these cases, claim that their civil rights have been violated. That is the main differentiation.

In the case of Trayvon Martin the NAACP is petitioning the Department of Justice to bring federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. They have been sending this email around, asking for support.


The Department of Justice has made no promises, but vows to continue investigating the “facts and circumstance” before taking any action. The DOJ told Bloomberg via email, “Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”

Support the NAACP petition here. Follow PolicyMic's Zimmerman trial live blog here

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