It finally happened. After two years, former President Trump has been sued civilly for wrongful death of one of the officers who died during the Capitol riots in 2021.
(Read my original blog post from Jan 19, 2021, “Can President Trump be found civilly liable for Capitol Riots?”)
Yesterday, on January 5, 2023, fallen U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick’s girlfriend filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for Washington, D.C., on behalf of Officer Sicknick’s estate, claiming that Trump’s words and actions on January 6, 2021, caused or contributed to his death.
This civil claim is far different from his Impeachment charges and from any criminal charges that have yet to be filed against Trump. Instead of defending himself in a criminal court, Trump is now on display in the court of public opinion and in federal civil court. And in this arena, he is not immune from suit.
Already there have been a few civil suits filed against Trump about the Capitol riots, but none of those has been for claims of wrongful death. Even so, thus far, the courts have upheld those lawsuits from Trump’s claims that he cannot or should not be civilly sued. This will be another lawsuit from which Trump cannot excuse or pardon himself.
I am not interested in, nor am I narrating on, the politics of the Capitol riots or on Trump’s actions (or inaction) during the riots. But, as a civil personal injury trial attorney, I am interested in the civil lawsuits and claims against him arising from the riots. And in a civil case, the burden of proof is much lower than the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal case. In this civil claim for wrongful death, the plaintiff – the estate of Officer Sicknick – will only have to prove that it is “more likely than not” that President Trump’s words, actions, and/or inactions, caused or contributed to the death of Officer Sicknick.
In such a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff does not have to prove that Trump himself caused Officer Sicknick’s death, and this by far would be an impossible standard. Instead, the plaintiff only has to prove that Trump’s actions reasonably and foreseeably could have (and did) cause the ultimate death of Officer Sicknick. “But for” Trump’s words and actions, Officer Sicknick would still be alive. They don’t have to prove he was the only cause, and they don’t have to prove he was the ultimate cause of Officer Sicknick’s death; the plaintiff only has to prove that Trump was a contributing factor in Officer Sicknick’s untimely death.
From here, it is most likely that Trump’s legal team will challenge standing and fight the existence of the lawsuit itself. Afterwards, assuming that the courts uphold the plaintiff’s right and ability to sue Trump for wrongful death, his attorneys will have to defend the civil claim. Those defenses will likely include an attempt to limit the percentage of liability Trump has for the death of Officer Sicknick by asking the Court or a jury to assign fault to everyone and anyone but Trump.
Stay tuned as we watch this lawsuit unfold. While we wait, check out that prior article from two years ago where I discuss how Trump can be sued, what a wrongful death claim means, and how it can be proved. Also check out my second article from February 2021 about the riots and possible civil lawsuits, “Who Can Sue Whom for the Capitol Riots? Standing and Jurisdictional Issues”.