Can a city be held liable for a wrongful death claim?

The recent killing of a 32-year-old woman in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who had been convicted of seven prior felonies and deported five times from the United States — but who was staying in the city under its “sanctuary” policy — has many people looking in different directions to decide who other than the accused killer may have been responsible for his being free at the time of the murder, despite an apparent request to the city by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified upon his release from jail in San Francisco, a request that the city rejected.

Wrongful death actions against municipal and state entities in California are not necessarily precluded under California law, but they can present formidable legal challenges. Historically governments have been immune from lawsuits under the doctrine known as “sovereign immunity”, but gradually both the federal government and the California legislature have recognized situations under which government employees, officials and even government agencies may be sued for wrongful acts.

It is still too soon after the death of the victim in this case to know whether her relatives will attempt to hold one or more government agencies liable in a civil lawsuit. Some of the considerations that any plaintiffs’ attorney would need to consider would include, but not be limited to:

  • ŸWhat effect would San Francisco’s refusal to comply with federal immigration law have on its potential liability to an individual who was apparently murdered by an illegal immigrant in the city?
  • What effect might the federal government’s failure to attempt to make San Francisco comply with federal law have on the city’s liability, as well as possibly even the federal government’s possible liability?
  • What effect might the doctrine of proximate cause have on the city’s possible liability? Does potential civil liability for the murder stop with the alleged killer?
  • How might a court interpret the applicable California statute in this case, based on earlier court decisions that have applied the state’s tort claims act

Anyone who believes that he has a possible tort-based claim against a municipal or state entity in California, including a wrongful death claim, should consult with a wrongful death lawyer in the state to determine the factual and legal issues that may come to bear on the claim.