Murder Victim's Family Wins $9 Million Claim

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Angelo Ziotas
Angelo Ziotas

It's not often that the family of a murder victim files a civil suit against a suspected killer.

The O.J. Simpson civil case may be the most notable exception, though it's said that the civil action was less about collecting damages and more about proving that the former football star, who was acquitted in criminal court, actually killed his ex-wife and a male friend.

But the family of 2007 murder victim Shamaia Smith, of East Hartford, sued her convicted killer, Kenneth Otto Sr., of Ellington, and a Hartford judge recently awarded more than $9 million in damages. Trial lawyers agreed that intentional wrongful death claims are rarely made, and that recovering any damages awarded is extremely difficult because insurance policies do not cover intentional conduct.

"It's less common because it's impossible in Connecticut to insure yourself for intentional conduct," said Angelo Ziotas, of Silver, Golub & Teitell, who is not involved in this case. "There's no way [Otto] could have insurance for this loss."

Ziotas said the more common civil strategy in such cases is for plaintiffs' lawyers to find a third party that should have known the victim was in danger and failed to act. One example would be police knowing about domestic abuse and doing nothing to prevent a person's death. Another example would be security personnel responding inadequately to a dangerous situation at a commercial establishment.

One of Otto's lawyers, Richard "Dick" Brown, of Brown, Paindiris & Scott in Hartford, said the plaintiffs won't be collecting on the judgment from his client anytime soon. "The guy's locked up for a significant period of time and obviously doesn't have any income," said Brown. "It isn't just about economics always. I assume the plaintiffs did it for reasons other than just the money. They're extremely angry of what my client was convicted of and felt the need to seek civil damages."

Brown, who said it hasn't been decided yet whether to appeal the civil verdict, noted that because it's nearly impossible to collect on intentional wrongful death claims, "there are not a lot of lawyers who want to take those cases."

It appears that one reason that the victim's family took civil action against Otto is because he allegedly began transferring assets to his wife even before police discovered the victim's charred remains. As such, Smith's estate is also suing Otto's ex-wife in an attempt to recover some assets.

The lawyer for Smith's estate in the civil proceedings is Stephen McEleney, of McEleney & McGrail in Hartford. McEleney did not return repeated messages last week.

Shot And Burned

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