By now we have all heard about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the young man who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. What most don’t know is that depending on the intricate details of the investigation, Mr. Zimmerman could be protected from going to jail under Florida law, but will it protect him and others from civil liability?
Florida has two provisions of law that may apply to the Trayvon Martin case. The first, is Florida Statute 766.012, the most common provision of the “Stand Your Ground” law, which says you may meet force with force, and may use deadly force and do not have to retreat, if you reasonably believe that the force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.
Also, Florida Statute 776.041 is the provision of our laws that covers the use of force by the person who is the aggressor (a person who starts a confrontation). Remarkably, the law states that the aggressor may still use deadly force if:
“Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or
In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.”
This law says that even if you pick a fight and you lose, as long as you “reasonably believe” you are going to die or suffer great bodily harm, and you try to escape, you can kill, or, if the aggressor simply believes that they are done with the fight and tells the other person, you can still “stand your ground” if you believe you are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. In other words, a bad guy can come up to you with a gun, with the intent of harming or killing you, put a gun to your head, and when you defend yourself, with equal force, the bad guy can simply say: I’m done, I don’t want to kill you anymore, and shoot you if you don’t believe him.
Florida also has another law on this subject that may protect Zimmerman from both criminal prosecution, which includes arrest, and from civil action for his actions. Florida Statute 766.032 states that if a person uses force, even deadly force, they cannot be arrested, detained, or sued. Even more, if they are sued for civil damages or wrongful death, they would be entitled to reimbursement for all reasonable attorneys’ fees, court costs, lost of income, and all expenses if the defendant is found “immune” from prosecution.
If Zimmerman is “immune” from prosecution under Florida’s law, then he cannot be sued for the wrongful death of Trayvon Martin. If he is, he would be entitled to recover his own damages and expenses incurred in defendant his actions. Interestingly, Trayvon Martin’s family’s ability to enforce their rights in civil court, hang on law enforcement’s decision of whether there is probable cause that the shooting was “unlawful.”
Written in collaboration with attorney Christopher Ligori.