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Michael Brown Lawsuit Highlights How Wrongful-Death Cases Aren't Easily Won

Civil lawsuits are a common tactic after criminal courts can't deliver the justice a family wants.
/ Source: NBC News

When a criminal charge doesn't stick, wrongful-death lawsuits are another legal option for families to find justice.

But while a civil suit carries a lower burden of proof than a criminal conviction, it doesn't guarantee a slam-dunk win.

The family of Michael Brown must still convince a jury that the unarmed teenager was wrongfully killed when Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot him last August. Lawyers for the family filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming Brown's civil rights were violated as a result of Wilson exercising excessive force.

Complicating the case is the fact that besides the city of Ferguson, officer Wilson and former Police Chief Thomas Jackson are named as defendants — both working in a profession typically shielded from civil liability.

Wilson, who resigned from his position, could try to get the suit dismissed, and raise the point that he was serving in the line of duty at the time of the shooting and used his "best judgment during a difficult circumstance," said Kendall Coffey, a former federal prosecutor and an NBC News legal analyst.

Should the suit move forward, Coffey added, "the plaintiffs have a compelling story to tell if it's to be believed. But it's certainly not going to be an easy case — even with an already-reduced standard of proof."

In other high-profile cases, the families of those killed have seen mixed-results:

O.J. Simpson

The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman sued the former football star after he was cleared by a Los Angeles jury in 1995 in their murders. Brown Simpson was the ex-wife of Simpson and Goldman was her friend.

A civil jury awarded the families a total $33.5 million in damages.

Robert Blake

The former "Baretta" star was acquitted in 2005 of the death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, four years earlier. She was fatally shot outside of a Los Angeles restaurant and while prosecutors believe Blake was involved, the murder was never officially solved.

A civil jury awarded Bakley's four children $30 million in damages.

Trayvon Martin

George Zimmerman, the man accused of fatally shooting 17-year-old Martin while he was cutting through a Sanford, Florida, subdivision, in 2012 was found not guilty a year later. While Martin's parents did not file a wrongful-death suit against Zimmerman, they did sue the homeowners association where Zimmerman lived and was a volunteer neighborhood watchman.

The parents' attorney, Benjamin Crump, who is also an attorney for the Brown family, said they decided to settle with the association. An amount wasn't publicly disclosed, although local reports said it was worth more than $1 million.

Sean Bell

Bell was killed in a hail of bullets in 2006 when New York City police investigating allegations of prostitution outside of a Queens, N.Y., strip club believed he and his friends were armed. The men were out on the eve of Bell's wedding for a bachelor party, and no gun was found in their car.

Three of the five detectives involved were acquitted of manslaughter charges. The family reached a settlement with the city for more than $7 million, although a condition of the deal precludes the city from admitting wrongdoing.