Laci Peterson's mother files wrongful death claims for more than $5 million

December 20, 2003 

Laci Peterson's mother sued Scott Peterson on Friday for more than $5 million in the deaths of his wife and unborn son, Conner.

"The family wants to be sure that Scott suffers the greatest of civil and criminal penalties to the greatest extent that our legal system allows," Modesto attorney Adam Stewart said. Stewart represents Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha.

Rocha filed two lawsuits Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court. She brought the first -- a wrongful death action -- as an individual. She brought the second -- a survival action -- as the administrator of Laci Peterson's estate.

"She wants to make sure justice is done," Stewart said, "whether it's in a civil court or a criminal court."

Attorney Matthew Geragos is handling Peterson's civil representation, Stewart said.

Geragos heads the civil litigation department in the Los Angeles law firm Geragos & Geragos. His brother and partner in the firm, Mark Geragos, is handling Peterson's criminal defense.

Matthew Geragos did not return a call Friday seeking comment.

Peterson, 31, is awaiting trial on charges of murdering his wife and unborn son. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In civil documents filed Friday, Rocha alleges that Peterson "planned and prepared to assault, batter and murder Laci D. Peterson," then killed her and their unborn son in the Modesto couple's Covena Avenue home.

The lawsuits seek in excess of $5 million in damages, as well as reimbursement for funeral expenses, burial costs, legal fees and other compensation.

"The imposition of substantial punitive and exemplary damages will in this case be both justified and necessary in order to send out a message from this court to all persons in the United States and throughout the world that such vicious and outrageous savagery inflicted by one human being upon another shall be met with the severest of civil penalties," the lawsuit states.

Criminal case to finish first

Though a case management conference has been scheduled for April 22, the lawsuits are not likely to move forward until the criminal case against Scott Peterson is concluded.

Peterson's trial is set for Jan. 26. That date could be pushed back for a number of reasons, including a defense bid to move the trial to another county because of massive publicity.

To obtain criminal convictions, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Peterson killed his wife and son.

In a civil case, the threshold for judgment is lower: a preponderance of the evidence. Sharon Rocha need only prove that it is more likely than not that Peterson was the killer.

Punitive damages, however -- which often constitute the "big money" in a lawsuit -- require proof of "clear and convincing evidence." That standard is harder to meet than the civil standard, but not as difficult as the criminal standard.

A criminal case also requires a unanimous verdict for conviction. A civil case requires that nine of 12 jurors agree.

If Peterson is convicted in the criminal case, the civil lawsuits -- needing even less proof -- would sail through, attorneys said.

"The fact that he murdered Mrs. Peterson would be deemed to be true in the civil case, and then we're talking about what damages would be recoverable," said Los Angeles attorney Edward Horowitz. He represented Nicole Brown Simpson's father in a wrongful death lawsuit against former football star O.J. Simpson.

A criminal jury acquitted

Simpson of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, but a civil jury later ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in damages to his wife's estate and Goldman's family. But only a fraction of that has been collected Horowitz said.

If Peterson is acquitted in his murder trial, a civil jury still could find him liable in the deaths.

In such an event, Peterson could be required to give a deposition and testify in the civil case, as Simpson was, said Los Angeles defense attorney Harlan Braun.

"If they seek to depose him and he refuses to appear, the court can enter a default judgment against him," Horowitz said. "If he is called as a witness and refuses to answer questions, he can be held in contempt and put in jail."

But comparing the Simpson and Peterson cases might be pointless, Braun said, because Peterson appears to be out of money.

Mark Geragos has requested that prosecutors release $15,000 cash and Peterson's truck to him, citing the mounting cost of the defense. The truck, seized almost a year ago by police, was released Thursday to a member of Geragos' law firm, Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said.

Rocha's lawyer probably filed the lawsuits to beat a deadline that used to close a year after a death, Braun said. State legislators extended the statute of limitations to two years, but some aspects of the change remain unclear.

"Lawyers do this to protect themselves, so they won't be criticized," Braun said. "There is always a chance he (Peterson) will come into something. Maybe he wants to write a book."

Filing "may be more symbolic than anything else," said Gerald Uelmen, a professor at the University of Santa Clara Law School.

Uelmen represented Simpson in an effort to protect him from punitive damages in the civil lawsuit. A judge ruled against them, saying Simpson's constitutional guarantee against being retried for the same offense doesn't apply to civil actions.

Wrongful death lawsuits usually are tried by a jury but can be heard by a judge if both parties agree, said Modesto attorney John Freeland, speaking in general terms, not about the Peterson case.

Juries also set damage amounts, Freeland said, but if there is more than one plaintiff, a judge apportions the award.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.


OBJECTIVES OF LAWSUITS

A wrongful death lawsuit seeks:

General damages

Special damages

Punitive and exemplary damages

Reimbursement of funeral expenses and burial costs

Legal costs

Interest on all sums awarded

Other relief the court deems proper

A survival action seeks:

Medical and related expenses

Personal property

Punitive and exemplary damages

Legal costs

Other relief the court deems proper


CRIMINAL VS. CIVIL

  • CRIMINAL CASE

    STANDARD OF PROOF: Beyond a reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is "not a mere possible doubt." It is when jurors "cannot say they feel an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge."

    JURY: Unanimous agreement for conviction

    PENALTY: Ranges from monetary, to jail time, to prison time, to death

  • CIVIL CASE

    STANDARD OF PROOF:

    For compensatory damages: Preponderance of the evidence. The plaintiffs need only prove that something is more likely true than not true.

    For punitive damages: Clear and convincing evidence. The party must persuade the jury that it is highly probable that the fact is true.

    JURY: Nine of 12 jurors must agree

    PENALTY: Monetary

    COMPENSATORY DAMAGES: Money that covers the actual cost or equivalent cost of the wrong or injury caused

    PUNITIVE DAMAGES: Payment to deter similar conduct by the defendant and others in the future

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