Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

In my previous post on this story, I discussed the horrific events surrounding the murders of the wife and two daughters of Dr. William Petit, in the 2007 Cheshire, Connecticut home invasion murders. I’ll now discuss why I believe there is a distinct possibility that the Cheshire Connecticut Police Department may possibly be exposed to a civil liability suit for negligence and wrongful death, owing to the police department’s failure to act in a reasonable or timely manner to rescue the Petit family.

To begin with, a (very) quick review of the tort of wrongful death: As I explain on my website page dealing with wrongful death, this is a rather broad legal term that is used to describe a situation where the death of a person would not have taken place under the circumstances that it did, except for some negligence that occurred on the part of another party. The circumstances surrounding a “wrongful death” can be varied: A loved one might have died as a result of medical negligence, a motor vehicle accident, a construction injury, or a defective product. A wrongful death suit is usually brought by a family member or a representative of the deceased victim’s estate. (If such a suit were brought here, the party filing the suit and seeking damages would be the representative(s) of the estate(s) of Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters. A wrongful death suit seeks the recovery of damages for the surviving family’s or the estate’s benefit as a result of the victim’s death.)

Were such a suit brought in this case, the plaintiff(s) would have to show that, but for the Cheshire Police Department’s failure to intervene in a timely manner to rescue Dr. Petit’s family, Mrs. Petit and Dr. Petit’s two daughters would not likely have perished. This could either be a daunting task, or a fairly easy one, and the success or failure of such a suit would likely come down to expert testimony. The plaintiff(s) would need to produce experts in the field of law enforcement and hostage situations, to show that the Cheshire Police Department’s failure to take any action other than to place themselves outside the Petit home, for almost 35 minutes, was unreasonable given the specific circumstances present.

Normally, this story would be posted on my Massachusetts criminal law blog. But I feel that it deserves to be discussed here, for reasons illustrating the legal concepts of negligence and wrongful death. This is an appallingly frightening story, nightmarish in its reality, and stunning in what appears at this time to be shocking negligence on the part of a local police department in Connecticut.

On July 23 2007, at 9:17 AM, a woman walked into a Connecticut bank, and in the process of withdrawing $15,000.00 in cash, explained to a teller as calmly as she could, that her husband and two daughters were being held hostage by two men who had invaded their Cheshire, Conn., home the night before. She told the teller that the armed invaders assured her that if they did not receive this money, that her husband and daughters would be killed. Trying desperately to appear inconspicuous, the woman, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, explained to the teller that she had been driven to the bank by one of the kidnappers, that he was watching her from the car, and also told the teller that the kidnappers had told her (Mrs. Petit,) that if the police were called, the armed invaders would kill her family. The woman then collected the $15,000.00 withdrawn from the account by the teller, and left the bank.

The bank manager was alerted to what had just transpired, and immediately called the Cheshire, CT Police Department. At 9:21 AM, Cheshire Police first learned of the hostage situation. About three miles away, her husband William and daughters Michaela, 11 and Hayley, 17 were being savagely beaten and terrorized by the armed invaders. At 9:26 AM, Mrs. Petit left the bank and got into the car waiting for her. She was closely watched by bank employees, and the bank manager provided a description of the vehicle to Cheshire Police, who were also given Mrs. Petit’s home address. At that same time (9:26 AM,) police cruisers were dispatched to the Petit home, to “set up a perimeter.” At 9:27 AM, a Police Department Captain ordered his officers to not approach the home. For the next thirty minutes, not a single officer approached the Petit home, or did anything to save the Petit family. Within this very time frame, the Petit family was being traumatized, tied up, beaten with a baseball bat, and one of the daughters raped. Worse, during this entire time frame, no other authorities were alerted to this situation by the Cheshire Police Department – not the Connecticut State Police or the State Police SWAT Team, not EMS or medical rescue personnel, not the Fire Department.

My apologies for not having posted here for awhile – I’ve been sidelined with either a minor flu or bad cold. Not a big deal; worse things can happen to people.

As the story behind today’s post makes very clear. This is the story of a very promising young student attending Harvard University, where he was embarking on a career toward medical school, and who showed all the promise that one could ask for. Tragically, that promise was cut short when the student, John Edwards of Wellesley, aged 19, committed suicide on November 29 2007. This past week, his parents filed a wrongful death suit against Harvard University, alleging that Edwards received substandard care from the University’s Health Services, which caused or contributed to his suicide.

Edwards originally sought help at the college’s health services office, because he reported that he was unable to study or concentrate for long periods of time. A nurse practitioner at the school’s infirmary prescribed Edwards “Adderall“, which is a drug that is designed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”, as it’s sometimes referred to.) In what I as a Massachusetts medical malpractice lawyer find surprising to say the least, the nurse prescribed this drug, even though Edwards had never been diagnosed with this condition. Some time afterward, when Edwards complained of anxiety and depression, the nurse practitioner also prescribed Edwards two additional medications: Prozac and Wellbutrin, which of course are powerful antidepressants. An important element in all this, is that Edwards was already taking another medication to treat acne, Accutane, and this drug is been widely linked to generating suicidal thoughts in patients who take it.

In a case that one can only hope will produce civil justice (vs. the criminal justice that’s already been obtained,) the parents of a 16-year-old Massachusetts murder victim have filed a $1 million lawsuit against her killer and his mother.

Joshua C. Whitaker, 23, was sentenced to life in the maximum security prison in Shirley, Massachusetts, after being convicted of the grisly murder of Kelsea L. Owens, who was murdered in Hampden, Massachusetts on August 15 2006. At his trial, Whitaker’s defense lawyer admitted to jurors that Whitaker bludgeoned Owens with pruning shears, a log and a set of dumbbells. Whitaker admitted to a paramedic: “I’m a murderer.” Testimony at the defendant’s murder trial established that Whitaker’s mother, Linda Whitaker, is the person who initially called police to report “a girl being assaulted and missing.”

Now, a wrongful death lawsuit has been filed in Hampden Superior Court against the Whitakers. The suit alleges that Joshua Whitaker had a “long history of violent and deviant behavior,” and centrally, claims that Whitaker’s mother, who he lived with, Linda Whitaker, knew or should have known about her son’s violent personality, and undertaken efforts or measures to monitor or control it. The Owens’ lawsuit alleges that Joshua Whitaker had previously been undergoing psychiatric treatment for violent tendencies, that his mother Linda Whitaker knew this, that she was at home at the time of the murder, and that she should have known her son had not been complying with his psychiatric treatment and medication regimen for a considerable period of time prior to the murder. In legal parlance, the suit alleges that “Linda Whitaker negligently and carelessly failed to properly monitor, supervise and observe Joshua Whitaker, who she knew … had a history of violent and deviant behavior.” The complaint also accuses the Whitakers of “conscious pain and suffering” and infliction of emotional distress.

Here’s a story of an interesting case involving a Massachusetts Wrongful Death claim. On December 9, 2000, the unthinkable happened to a young couple living in central Massachusetts.

Sherylann Miller, a 38 year-old married woman and the mother of a young girl, had been hired as a restaurant manager by a local KFC-Taco Bell franchise. The store site was still under construction, on Main Street in Clinton, and Ms. Miller was accepting job applications from prospective employees as the site was still being constructed on Dec. 9, 2000, the last day of her life. It was the last day of her life because a particularly pathetic excuse of a human being by the name of Quillie Merle Spray III, a 36-year-old tile setter from Oklahoma who had been hired by the restaurant’s general contractor to work in the restaurant at the time of the slaying, attacked Ms. Miller without any provocation, inflicting six fatal stab wounds to her head and neck. While this psychotic waste of space was later convicted of first-degree murder in Mrs. Miller’s death and sentenced to life in state prison without the possibility of parole, Mrs. Miller is still dead, and this psychotic murderer clearly should never been hired by the General Contractor who hired him. The victim’s husband, Thomas G. Miller was left a widow, and their daughter left without a mother. While, thankfully, criminal justice was served in the conviction of this psychotic murderer, should these victims be left without any civil remedy here?

As a Massachusetts Wrongful death attorney, I can assure you the answer is No. Enter a civil lawsuit against the responsible parties, for “Wrongful Death.” Thomas Miller did just that, filing the civil suit in 2003 as administrator of the estate of his late wife, Sherylann Miller. Named as defendants in the suit were the now-murder convict, Quillie Merle Spray; his brother, Gary Spray, who was working with him at the time of the slaying; and Boss Contractors Inc. of New Hampshire, the general contractor for the restaurant construction.

The suit, which included claims for negligent and grossly negligent wrongful death and conscious pain and suffering, accused the defendants of negligently failing to protect Mrs. Miller from her killer. Her husband alleged in the lawsuit that Quillie Merle Spray III was a substance abuser with a criminal record and a propensity for violence, and that the civil defendants who had control over this restaurant construction could have and should have known this (a principal legal test of negligence in Massachusetts.)

In what is probably a sign of the increased resistance of insurance companies to settle civil tort claims nowadays that clearly call for pre-trial settlement, the defendants and their insurers would not settle this case before trial, and the case proceeded to trial in Worcester Superior Court. At the 11th hour, a settlement was reached this past Tuesday, while the jury was in its second day of deliberations. The trial was entering its fourth week and the jury’s deliberations came to a close without a verdict after the settlement was negotiated. The financial terms of the agreement are confidential.

If you’ll take a look at my website, under the “Wrongful Death” Section of our Practice Descriptions, you’ll see that a wrongful death suit is a particular kind of “tort”: A wrongful death suit differs from other Massachusetts personal injury lawsuits such as product liability, construction site accidents, car accidents, medical malpractice and premises liability/slip and fall cases, in that the actual victim (called the “decedent”) is not bringing the suit. Rather, it is usually a family member or a representative of the deceased victim’s estate. A wrongful death suit alleges that the victim’s death would not have occurred but for the actions or inactions of the civil defendants, and this type of suit seeks the recovery of monetary damages for the surviving family’s or the estate’s benefit as a result of the victim’s death.

Money can never replace the loss of a loved one. Once a tragedy like this strikes, the only thing the law can do is to provide a judicial remedy, assuming negligence can be established on the part of another party, for family members left behind. A wrongful death suit in Massachusetts allows a potential award of damages for the economic and non-economic harm done to the victim’s family. While expert testimony can usually estimate the loss of present and future income potential that a deceased victim of wrongful death would have earned for his or her family, as well as for medical expenses related to the victim’s death, “non-economic” damages compensate the victim’s family for the loss of companionship, love and affection that they will suffer as a result of the victim’s death.

In order to bring a Massachusetts Wrongful Death suit, the suit must be filed prior to the expiration of the Statute of Limitations, or the suit will be forever barred in the future. Hence, if you have lost a loved one due to what you suspect may be the negligence of another, it is extremely important that you speak with a qualified wrongful death attorney as soon as possible after the event which caused the victim’s death. We are very experienced in this area of litigation, and you are encouraged to contact us for a free, no obligation consultation.
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