On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., in a misguided attempt to gain the attention of Jodie Foster, attempted to assassinate President Reagan, but instead caused significant, serious injuries to President Reagan’s Press Secretary James Brady. After multiple surgeries, Mr. Brady was eventually stabilized and lived an additional 33 years before dying. After Mr. Brady’s death, an autopsy by the medical examiner led to a classification of Mr. Brady’s death as a homicide. As prosecutors mull over potential further criminal charges against Mr. Hinckley for murder, the civil lawyer must scratch his head and wonder what precedent is being set in this circumstance.
Presumably, the medical examiner has concluded, at a minimum, that the shooting by Hinckley was the likely cause of Mr. Brady’s death 33 years later. In the past, courts have been reluctant to find a causal relationship between an act and a death if the death takes place more than one year after the act. This “year and a day rule” was utilized in criminal cases standing for the proposition that an individual could not be brought up on murder charges if the victim survived more than one year after the incident. This rule in criminal cases has been abrogated by the majority of courts as a result of advances in medical treatment and the ability to stabilize individuals on life support for extreme periods of time.
From a criminal standpoint it seems just to ensure that someone who causes the death of someone else is adequately charged and brought to justice for their crimes. From a civil standpoint, however, it becomes a little less clear. The statute of limitation for wrongful death begins to run at the time of death. It is not overly difficult to imagine a scenario where death arrives, albeit tardily, as a result of actions that took place many years in the past; a patient who dies at 55 as a result of the after effects secondary to a birth injury for example.
It would be unwise to open such a Pandora’s Box of civil litigation in which witnesses and evidence are so long gone as to render a defense all but impossible. It remains to be seen just how far the Courts are willing to go in pursuit of attenuated wrongful death claims.