Yeardley Love family sues George Huguely

Sharon Love, Yeardley Love’s mother, has filed suit for the wrongful death of her daughter against George Huguely.  In February, 2012, Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the death of Love on May 3, 2010.  The suit alleges that Huguely caused her death under five different theories:

  1. Negligence
  2. Indifference and acting with utter disregard of caution
  3. Acting with conscious disregard and reckless indifference
  4. Willful and malicious injury and death
  5. Assault and battery

The claim is made for $29,450,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages.  You can read the lawsuit itself on WVIR’s website, here.

Some FAQ’s —

Why $29,450,000?  The suit alleges that Yeardley would have lived for another 58.9 years, and that works out to $500,000 a year.

What’s with the $1,000,000 in punitive damages?  Under Virginia law, punitive damages are limited to $350,000, but that is a limitation that plaintiff’s lawyers feel is unwise and unconstitutional.  Courts have upheld the limitation, but perhaps this will be the case that prompts the legislature or the courts to overturn that limit.

Why file it as negligence?  Why not just say, “He killed her in cold blood”?  Because Huguely probably has no money of his own, but he may have insurance.  The problem is that insurance companies don’t insure intentional acts.  So by styling it in this way, the Love attorneys are trying to keep insurance coverage available.

Will they sue anyone else?  Not very likely.  Some people have suggested that perhaps the Love family might want to sue the University of Virginia, but I see no possible way that the school, or any other person, could be sued.

This is pretty much a slam dunk for the Love family, isn’t it?  He has already been found guilty of murder.  In Virginia state courts, a criminal conviction is not admissible to establish his civil liability.  Virginia has the most restrictive “collateral estoppel” rule in the country.  In federal courts, the criminal conviction might be admitted to prove that he is liable; not so in state courts.  Even in Virginia, though, the criminal conviction can be admitted by the defense in defending the punitive damage claim because it is relevant to show that he has been punished enough.  If they want to show that.  They probably would not want to.

But surely the conviction means that the case is pretty easy for the Loves?  This is where civil and criminal cases can differ.  In Virginia, civil lawyers are allowed MUCH more information about the other side’s case than in a criminal case.  And the lawyers might decide to try the case very differently.  For example, suppose the Huguely defense team were to decide to have George Huguely testify, and that he testifies that they were struggling and they fell, and during the fall she hit her head and landed on the side of the her neck.  The physical evidence is consistent with that theory — concussion, injury to the neck, etc.  The actuarial data shows that in roughly 1% to 3% of cases involving concussions, the injured person suffers the neck injury that the experts say killed Yeardley Love. In about 15% to 20%, those with the neck injury die.  Put that together, and you have about a 0.2% to 0.6% chance of death.  One basis for defending the case would be to say that it is simply not foreseeable that death would result from the conduct of George Huguely.  That doesn’t get him out of liability entirely, but it changes the emotional picture dramatically, and therefore the liability for high damages.

When might this case go to trial?  If they asked for a jury trial at the earliest possible time, that trial would probably be scheduled about two years away.  Don’t hold your breath.