The parents of Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods, two of the Americans killed in the Benghazi attacks, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to a report by the New York Times. In the suit (available here), the parents allege that Hillary Clinton negligently contributed to their sons’ deaths by using a private email server and purposefully passing along incorrect information. This case presents interesting legal questions what a plaintiff must prove in terms of jurisdiction, statute of limitations, and causation to win a wrongful death claim in a court of law.
Jurisdiction and Venue
Two of the initial steps in bringing a lawsuit are establishing jurisdiction and venue. It’s important to point out that most wrongful death lawsuits are filed in state court and are governed by state wrongful death statutes. These statutes and state civil procedure can differ dramatically between the states. However, the lawsuit filed against Hillary Clinton was filed in federal court. In order to have a case heard in federal court, the plaintiff must establish that a federal district court can exercise jurisdiction over the matter.
Here, the plaintiffs allege jurisdiction is proper based on a diversity of citizenship. Under diversity jurisdiction, the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) must be citizens of different states and the amount in question must be over $75,000. If either of these conditions is not met, a federal district court cannot exercise jurisdiction under diversity jurisdiction. However, while the $75,000 requirement seems high, in reality a plaintiff may assert punitive damages in order to meet the threshold.
The plaintiff sometimes has a choice in selecting venue. Here, the plaintiffs allege venue is proper in the District of Columbia because that is where the Defendant resides. The Plaintiff only needs a short statement explaining why jurisdiction and venue are proper; no lengthy position is required.
In order for the plaintiffs to prevail, they must prove Hillary Clinton’s negligence proximately caused their sons’ deaths. Proximate cause would involve an unbroken chain of events or a clear linear connection between Hillary Clinton’s actions (or inactions) and the deaths of the Americans. This likely is a tall order for the plaintiffs in the present case. In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Hillary Clinton’s email was hacked by foreign nationals as a result of her usage of a private email server, that information recovered from these emails fell into the hands of terrorists, and the terrorists used the knowledge to carry out the attacks that resulted in the deaths.
Nevertheless, at the motion to dismiss stage of a lawsuit, the judge must consider the suit in the light most favorable to the opposing party. This means the judge must give the benefit of the doubt to the plaintiff’s factual allegations, and must allow all of the plaintiffs’ reasonable assumptions to stand as true.
Statute of Limitations
Almost all civil actions must be brought within a set period of time, often two, six or ten years. These timeframes are known as a statute of limitations. The length of time you have to bring a lawsuit differs dramatically based on the state the lawsuit was filed in and the nature of the civil action. In Alabama, wrongful death claims generally must be brought within two years from the date of death. This timeframe can change, however, in certain circumstances. For instance, a statute of limitations may be delayed or “toll” when the plaintiff is a minor or the plaintiff is not aware a cause of action has accrued. Because the statute of limitations can serve as an absolute bar to a claim, it’s important to contact an attorney as quickly as possible after a claim has accrued.
In responding to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, the defendant usually asserts several affirmative defenses. An affirmative defense is essentially an assertion by the Defendant that he or she is not liable for a certain reason — even if they otherwise would be liable under the plaintiff’s accusations. There are numerous affirmative defenses.
Three common affirmative defenses are contributory negligence, comparative negligence, and immunity. Contributory negligence and comparative negligence are closely related, and states recognize one or the other but not both. Alabama recognizes contributory negligence. Under contributory negligence, if a plaintiff was also negligent, his or her claim is barred. Most other states recognize comparative negligence, which deducts or subtracts the plaintiff’s negligence from the negligence of the defendant, instead of serving as a total bar to the plaintiff’s claim.
In the present case, Hillary Clinton may assert the affirmative defense of governmental immunity. In such a defense, she is essentially asserting that because the accident occurred in her regular duties as an official government officer, she is immune from liability. Affirmative defenses must be specially pled, meaning they must be laid out in the Defendant’s response, or else the Defendant risks not being able to assert them later. For this reason, many defendant’s state many more affirmative defenses than would seem necessary or appropriate.
While we hope the proceeding article illustrates some of the common elements of a lawsuit, it’s important to keep in mind that innumerable contingencies can complicate legal proceedings. For more information on wrongful death lawsuits in Alabama, check out our page here. If you believe you have a lawsuit, contact us today for a free consultation.