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Wrongful Death Suit Filed in Huguely Case

The mother of slain University of Virginia student Yeardley Love has filed a Wrongful Death lawsuit against her murderer, George Huguely, in the Circuit Court for Charlottesville, VA, according to multiple news outlets.  I could not find a copy of the Complaint online, but it is likely that the Complaint will alternately allege that Huguely’s actions were intentional, done with willful indifference or concern for Love’s well-being, and/or failed to meet the standard of reasonable or ordinary care.   The suit seeks $29.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

In May 2010, the murder of University of Virginia student and Lacrosse player Yeardley Love became a national story.  It was quickly determined that she was killed by her ex-boyfriend, fellow UVA student, George Huguely.  Many people in Maryland had a personal interest in the case because both were from Maryland, Love’s family being from the Baltimore area, and Huguely being from Chevy Chase, a suburb outside of Washington, D.C.   Yeardley Love was only 22-years-old when she was murdered.  Police discovered that there had been prior instances of threats and physical assaults by Huguely against Love, and Huguely admitted to police that he assaulted Love on the night in question, but the coroner discovered that the assault was far more severe than that to which Huguely had been willing to admit.  He was arrested and charged with first degree murder.  After a two-week trial in February 2012, the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder, recommending a 26-year prison term.  He will be formally sentenced in the summer.  There have also been reports that Huguely will file an appeal or request a new trial.

Even though both Love and her murderer were from Maryland, Virginia law will govern the wrongful death suit because the crime took place in Virginia.   However, some interesting evidentiary issues may develop in this case that could appear in any wrongful death action involving an underlying criminal act:

  • What impact does Huguely’s conviction have on the civil suit? Probably none.  In Maryland, evidence of the disposition of an underlying criminal matter (conviction, acquittal, stet, etc.) is not admissible in a subsequent criminal trial.  Only if there was a guilty plea, which would constitute an admission, could the conviction be admitted.
  • Will Huguely have to testify?  Yes…and No.  This is a tricky situation, particularly if/when an appeal or motion for retrial is filed.  Huguely’s criminal attorneys likely will not permit him to testify substantively, and will have him assert his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.  In a criminal case, a defendant can refuse to testify on 5th Amendment grounds, and his refusal to testify cannot be inferred negatively against him.  In a civil trial, the Defendant must take the stand if called, but he can still refuse to answer a question on 5th Amendment grounds.  In contrast to a criminal case, though, a jury can draw a negative inference from a Defendant’s assertion of the 5th Amendment.   There is also some legal authority that suggests that a Defendant’s refusal to testify as to certain issues can limit the Defendant’s ability to produce other evidence relating to those issues.
  • Will Huguely be entitled to assert the 5th Amendment?  This is also a tricky issue.  On the one hand, he has already been convicted of the crime; he cannot be recharged.  However, if he seeks a new trial, his argument will be that he still has a valid interest in asserting the privilege.   There could also be fights about the scope of the privilege, with the Love family arguing that Huguely is asserting the privilege too broadly.  If a court rules that Huguely must answer certain questions, and he refuses to do so, he could be subject to other sanctions and penalties.  At the end of the day, it seems unlikely that Huguely will answer any substantive questions, regardless of the consequences.
  •  What evidence will be made available in the civil suit?  The Love family and the media have already requested the court to unseal certain evidence from the criminal trial, which has been opposed by Huguely’s lawyers and the prosecutors.  The civil suit may allow the Love family to gain access to certain materials that have thus far been kept confidential due to the investigation.  Huguely will likely fight at every turn to prevent the Loves from gaining new materials and/or making them public.

Again, these are issues that can come up in all similar civil suits.  The defendant’s main goal has to be to preserve his best defenses in the criminal matter, even if it heightens the risk of losing in the civil case.  This Wrongful Death suit should get plenty of media attention, and it will be interesting to see how these discovery matters unfold.

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