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Appeals court: Daughter's wrongful death claim can go forward

In a split opinion, a federal appeals court determined that a wrongful death suit filed by a girl whose father was killed by San Diego sheriff's deputies can proceed. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case against San Diego County can be heard by a jury.

The girl's father was shot to death by sheriff's deputies who responded to a domestic disturbance call. Reportedly, the man's girlfriend told the first deputy on the scene that they had been fighting because he wanted to kill himself with car exhaust, but that he had not harmed her. While she said that this was not his first suicide attempt, unbeknownst to the deputy, he had previously tried to stab himself to death with a knife.

When the second deputy arrived, the two confronted the man. When he held up his hands, he had a knife pointed downward. He then moved towards them. That's when they shot and killed him.

The majority of the appeals court determined that whether the deputies used "excessive force," as the wrongful death claim asserts, is still a question. They ruled that a jury should decide whether the deputies could reasonably believe that their lives were in danger.

The victim's girlfriend claims that he gave no indication that he wanted to harm the deputies and told them that they could arrest him. She said that his expression as he approached the two was "clueless" rather than menacing. The court agreed that the man's possession of a knife was not sufficient reason to use lethal force. They also noted that he was following the deputies' commands and was not ordered to stop as he moved towards them before they fired the fatal shots.

Courthouse News Service reported that the case will go back to district court to determine whether the victim's daughter could file a survival claim that her father's Fourth Amendment rights were violated. According to CNS, she was 12 when her father was killed in 2006.

Wrongful death suits with officer-involved killings can be tricky. Officers will usually argue that they believed their lives to be in danger. It is for a judge or jury to sort out the facts of the case. That's why it is essential that plaintiffs have legal representatives to argue their case and speak for their loved ones who are no longer able to speak for themselves.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, "Suit upheld against San Diego deputies who killed suicidal man" Maura Dolan, Dec. 02, 2013

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