Wrongful Death Lawsuit Brought Against the Federal Government after DEA Agent Killed California Man
In June 2010, a DEA agent shot and killed an 18-year-old man in a parking lot in Studio City, California. The victim’s mother has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government. A California wrongful death lawyer discusses the case.
Zac Champommier was meeting a friend that he had talked with online. When Zac arrived at the parking lot, he saw his acquaintance scuffling with some middle-aged men, one of whom was described by a witness as looking like a “biker person” in a leather jacket.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Zac reportedly stepped on the gas of his mother’s Toyota and hit a man who was holding a gun. A man nearby responded by firing three shots at Zac, resulting in the young man’s death.
Unfortunately, the men who were engaged in the scuffle in the parking lot were part of an undercover law enforcement task force. They included LAPD officers, DEA agents and sheriff’s deputies. They had just finished a narcotics raid and were in the parking lot debriefing when they saw Zac’s friend pull up and begin looking in windows. The law enforcement officers apparently thought that the friend was stealing, thus leading to the scuffle.
The man who shot Zac turned out to be a DEA agent, and he argues that shooting Zac was necessary because Zac was a deadly immediate threat due to the fact that he was trying to run down a federal officer.
Zac’s mother disagrees with what the DEA agent did and has filed a lawsuit against the United States. She alleges that poor training, reckless conduct and an officer cover-up was the cause of her son’s death and indicates that the DEA refuses to acknowledge that they killed a panicked kid, not a criminal.
The Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Zac’s mother has filed a wrongful death lawsuit to attempt to make the federal government pay for the losses they caused. Wrongful death claims are filed by surviving family members of those killed by negligent or wrongful acts. Damages in wrongful death claims generally include compensation for the loss of any financial support the deceased was providing. Damages also include payment of funeral costs, medical bills incurred prior to death, and compensation for loss of companionship of a loved one.
Wrongful death claims can be brought against anyone whose negligence or wrongful acts are a direct cause of death. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the defendant breached a legal duty or did something unreasonably careless or negligent. The plaintiff must also prove that the defendant’s wrongful or negligent act was the direct cause of death. Finally, the plaintiff must prove that actual loss occurred and that damages were suffered.
In this case, the defendant is the United States because the DEA agents were government employees who were acting on behalf of the United States government.
The Case Against the DEA Agents
Mrs. Champommier is alleging that the DEA agent in this case acted negligently and wrongfully in shooting her son and that she is thus entitled to wrongful death damages.
Her attorney indicates that the agents and officers created an unnecessary danger to the public when they debriefed in a public parking lot after their narcotics bust. It is also argued that the law enforcement agents created a situation where they were unable to take the time to discern the difference between the threat of deadly force and a minor traffic accident.
Police and law enforcement can, of course, use deadly force when there is an immediate threat to their lives. However, any use of force must be reasonable. In Graham v. Connor, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that a determination of “reasonableness” was an objective test judged from the perception of the law enforcement officer at the scene. Use of deadly force is held to the toughest standard and is permitted only in situations where lethal force must be used to prevent death or serious bodily harm.
In this case, it is arguable whether the DEA agent feared the threat of serious bodily harm if Zac was not shot. If Zac was indeed trying to run over law enforcement agents, this could justify the use of force. However, if Zac was just trying to escape what he believed to be a gunfight by armed men, then this weakens the case for the use of force.
Also at issue is whether the law enforcement agents were unreasonably negligent in creating a dangerous situation. Engaging in a public gunfight in a parking lot with no indication they were law enforcement officers is inarguably a very dangerous thing to do. This action may be viewed as a direct cause of Zac’s untimely death.
The question of whether the government is responsible for the death in the Studio City, California parking lot is one that will be decided by a jury in upcoming weeks as both sides present their evidence about whether the DEA officer’s conduct was justified or whether the government should be liable for unreasonably negligent conduct that led to the death of a young man.
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