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Wrong place, wrong time — Is vicarious liability for murder Legal? Is it Just?

The front of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.Recently, five Chicago area teens were charged with vicarious liability for murder.

Not a single one of the teens did anything to cause the death of their friend—he was shot by someone else.

So then, why are they charged with murder?

Felony Murder Rule

When I was in law school, I took a variety of classes.  Part of that was because first year law students had to take Criminal Law and Procedure. Then, I really didn’t know I’d wind up as a personal injury and workers’ compensation lawyer, so it seemed like an interesting class. 

At least most classes seemed interesting when I was paying attention and not scribbling marathon pace times in the margins of my notes. All classes seemed equally painful and confounding to me. But I do recall some nuggets of information that seeped into my stressed brain. 

One was a seemingly bizarre law in some states known as the felony murder rule. It imposes vicarious liability for a murder that occurs during commission of a felony.  Under the rule, if you are involved in commission of a felony and someone dies, you can be charged with murder.

Trying to break into a store through the roof? If your buddy falls through the skylight to his death, you could get charged with murder!

Typically, most states have limited the interpretation of this rule.  It is most often used when there is a robbery, a firearm is used, and someone gets shot (say, the store clerk).  While the logic of being charged with murder solely because you’re involved in a violent felony with a firearm when someone dies seems a stretch, it means you kind of made your bed and now must lie in it.

(We have vicarious liability rules in civil personal injury law too. But the rules apply in very limited situations. And the consequence is financial responsibility — not imprisonment.)

But the Current Chicago-Area Case Has Raised Questions

In the Chicago area case, six teens drove to the suburbs for the specific reason to commit residential and vehicular burglaries. There is evidence that they had a large knife with them.

The twist is that the teens were walking up a driveway and awakened the owner of the house. He was a licensed gun owner. He fired warning shots at the kids when they refused his request to leave his property.

Sadly, one of his warning shots hit and killed one of the six teens.

Now, the deceased teen’s friends are charged with his murder.

Is it Fair?

In addition to the obvious stretch in this case that one of the “bad guys” died instead of one of the “good guys” (store clerk, police officer), there is a racial element. All of the teens are Black.

The Lake County State’s Attorney, Michael Nerheim, claims the teens had a 10-inch knife, that the homeowner fired his gun to scare the children away, and that the property owner believed he was in danger of physical harm. We do not yet know the factual basis behind these claims. Even considering those facts true, the typical reaction of most laypeople and even some lawyers has been “this doesn’t seem fair,” “I didn’t realize that was a law,” and “I can’t imagine that was the intent of the law.”

You can read the actual article explaining the “basis” for the charges.

There Ought to (Not) Be a Law

One thing that this case has spurred is talk about the felony murder rule in general and the specific intent and application of it in jurisdictions that have it.

About half the states in our country have an F-M rule. The rules vary in how they are phrased and interpreted. In short, they are not used very often. To be clear, this particular scenario is one of the more off the wall scenarios where it has been used to charge participants in a felony with murder.

Many criminal justice reform activists, and assorted other criminologists, are bandying about ways to ensure laws like this go by the wayside or are limited severely.

Perhaps out of some horrible circumstances, some good will come.

Contact Chicago Personal Injury Lawyer Stephen Hoffman

As in all cases involving injury and potential liability, if you have been hit by a vehicle immediately get medical treatment, report the crash to police and your own insurance company, and contact a lawyer with expertise in your type of case, such as bicycle accidents or pedestrians hit by cars.

If you've been in an accident and have questions, contact Chicago personal injury attorney Stephen L. Hoffman for a free consultation at (773) 944-9737. Stephen has nearly 30 years of legal experience and has collected millions of dollars for his clients. He is listed as a SuperLawyer, has a 10.0 rating on Avvo, and is BBB A+ accredited. He is also an Executive Level Member of the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce.

Stephen handles personal injury claims on a contingency fee basis, which means you don’t pay anything upfront and he only gets paid if you do. Don’t wait another day, contact Stephen now.

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