Civil suits become forum for payback

R. Lewis case latest to test lower burden

March 01, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Make them pay.

That is intent of an increasing number of victims' relatives who go after suspects' money - even after criminal prosecutions falter or when no charges are filed.

Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis this week became one of several co-defendants in an $11 million wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from the Jan 31, 2000 deaths of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker.

Though uncommon, legal experts say, such lawsuits are cropping up more often as families increasingly use the lower burden of proof in civil cases to try to tie suspects to the deaths of their relatives.

Georgia prosecutors last year dropped a murder charge against Lewis in exchange for his pleading guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice. The two other defendants, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were acquitted of murder in what some attorneys consider a bungled trial. The others named in the civil suit - two passengers in Lewis' limousine and the corporate owner of the lounge where the party was held - were not charged at all.

Statistics on this type of case are not kept, but the National Crime Victim Bar Association in Arlington, Va., has noted a 200 percent increase since 1991 in all civil lawsuits brought by crime victims, says the group's director, James A. Ferguson. With the rise of the victims' rights movement, he said victims are more aware that they are not limited to criminal prosecutions to seek what they consider justice.

In the most notorious case, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the criminal trial for the 1994 murders of ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, but was found liable in 1997 for their wrongful deaths. He has appealed an order to pay $33.5 million to the victims' families.

The standard of proof to win is much lower in a civil trial - dropping from near certainty to get a criminal conviction to a more-than-less standard for a civil victory, said Byron Warnken, University of Baltimore law professor.

"No one ever asked them [jurors in the Simpson criminal trial] can you find this with 51 percent degree of certainty - that is the preponderance of the evidence," he said.

One of the heftiest jury verdicts in the country last year came in the case of a Tennessee lawyer ordered to pay $113 million in the death of his wife. He had not been charged criminally; her body was not found.

In a highly publicized Maryland case, no charges were filed in the slaying of Susan Hurley Harrison, the Ruxton socialite whose body was found two years after her 1994 disappearance. In 1997, her children sued her estranged husband, James J. Harrison Jr., whom police called the chief suspect but who denied killing her. In 1999, the lawsuit, which sought to bar Harrison from inheriting her money, was resolved out of court in a sealed agreement.

Harrison's lawyer, Steven A. Allen, said the families of the Georgia victims may find that if their case does not settle out of court - most do - any unpleasant details of the men's lifestyles will be played up. Lollar and Baker had criminal records. Why they were at the Cobalt lounge, whether they were drinking and what they might have said or done will be highlighted in an effort to portray them as inviting trouble.

"Unless these guys have a pristine background," Allen said, "you are giving the defense an opportunity to dredge up every bit of dirt they can find."

A settlement may be attractive to Lewis or the others because the price of a drawn-out defense is likely to go into the six figures, Allen said.

Lewis, who has a $26 million contract and is the highest paid linebacker in football, probably was named as a defendant because of his wealth, legal experts say.

"There is somebody who does have a lot of money. That is Ray Lewis and he is the target," said Paul D. Bekman, past president of the Maryland State Bar Association and successful plaintiff's lawyer in wrongful death cases.

He said it is likely that the plaintiffs will try to show "some sort of joint participation in this tragic incident" to get to Lewis.

"I would say given what we have all heard about the facts in this case, I can't think of any other reason to bring Ray into this suit and make the allegations they have made," said Ron Cherry, Lewis' personal attorney.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Fulton County (Ga.) State Court, was brought in the name of India Smith, the infant daughter of Kellye Smith and Lollar, her boyfriend.

Michael Weinstock, the attorney, said he hopes the civil suit will result in justice for the family. He claims Lewis was consulted when Sweeting or Oakley bought knives at a Sports Authority store, should have known their backgrounds, and either contributed to the deaths outside the Cobalt lounge or was involved in them.

Weinstock said he hopes to bring out information that did not surface in the criminal trial, such as what became of Lewis' clothing from that night.

"If I do my job correctly, we should be able to piece together each part of the event. You usually get pretty close to the truth," Weinstock said.

All defendants in the civil case will have to give depositions under oath. With the criminal case over, Oakley and Sweeting cannot refuse to speak for fear of self-incrimination, noted Bekman.

But Bruce Harvey, Oakley's lawyer in the criminal case, said there may not be much more, if any, relevant information to get.

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