Defenses to Wrongful Death Actions

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 What is a Wrongful Death Action?

You may have seen stories about high-profile wrongful death lawsuits in the news. A wrongful death action is a civil lawsuit generally brought against a defendant who caused someone’s death as a result of negligence or an intentional act.

The parties involved generally involve the defendant (who caused the death), the decedent (the person who died), and the beneficiaries (person or people who have legal standing to bring the claim in court). In many cases, the beneficiaries bring the lawsuit through the estate of the decedent.

While the rules for these lawsuits can vary from state to state, the basic idea is that the beneficiaries can bring a personal injury suit on the decedent’s behalf. Because these types of lawsuits are based on the idea of personal injury, many defenses that would be available in personal injury lawsuits are also available in wrongful death lawsuits.

What are the Elements of Proof for a Wrongful Death Action?

In a wrongful death action, the plaintiff is held to the same standard of proof as if the decedent had lived. In order to prevail in a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff has to prove certain things occurred:

  • That the decedent died;
  • That the defendant’s negligence or intentional act was the cause of the death, or that the defendant was strictly liable for the death;
  • The decedent has surviving beneficiaries or dependents; and
  • The death has caused monetary damages to the surviving beneficiaries or dependents.

If the argument in the case is that the defendant’s negligence caused the death, then the plaintiff is also going to have to prove the elements of a negligence case:

  • Duty of Care: that the defendant owed a certain duty of care to the decedent;
  • Breach of Duty of Care: that the defendant breached or failed to follow that duty of care owed to the defendant;
  • Causation: that the defendant’s action directly caused the death of the decedent.

Keep in mind that if the wrongful death claim is based on allegations that the defendant acted intentionally in causing the decedent’s death, the proof of negligence elements will not apply.

What are Some Possible Defenses to a Wrongful Death Action?

The available defenses in a wrongful death action depend largely on a number of things. Each state has its own rules about how wrongful death lawsuits are handled, and the facts and circumstances of each case will also affect what defenses are available to the defendant.

However, depending on the circumstances of the case, some available defenses may include:

  • No Causation: In order to hold a defendant responsible for wrongful death, there must be a link between the defendant’s conduct and the death. The cause does not have to be direct, but the defendant’s action has to be linked somehow to the cause of death. The defendant will not be held liable for wrongful death if the plaintiff cannot prove a causal connection between the two.
  • Self Defense: This defense is only available if the defendant had reason to believe that great bodily harm or loss of life was imminent. It is not enough for a defendant to merely state that they believed bodily harm was about to occur; that belief must also be reasonable under the circumstances.
  • Assumption of Risk: A defendant may make the argument that the decedent assumed the risk of their actions, which resulted in the death. This defense is not available in all cases, and requires that the decedent knew and understood the dangers involved, and then proceeded with the action or behavior.
  • Decedent’s Involvement in an Unlawful Act: If the decedent was participating in an unlawful act when they died, the beneficiaries may not be able to recover any damages. The reasoning is that society does not want to reward unlawful acts. For example, if the decedent died while robbing a bank (and the defendant’s action caused the decedent’s death during the robbery), the beneficiaries will not be able to receive any monetary damages.
  • Release Agreement: The decedent may have signed a release agreement, which would bar a lawsuit in the event of the decedent’s death. Some companies may require people sign releases before participating in particular activities, where they agree not to sue in the event of injury. While this defense may be available in cases of simple negligence, it may not be available in cases of gross negligence (where the defendant consciously disregards the need to use reasonable care).
  • Contributory Negligence: Some states may not hold a defendant liable if the decedent contributed to their own injury and death. In states that stick to contributory negligence rules, the defendant will not be liable at all (and the beneficiaries will not recover any damages) if the decedent contributed to their own injury at all.
  • Comparative Negligence: Some states have rules that use percentages of responsibility when it comes to fault. Rather than contributory negligence, this “comparative negligence” rule will reduce an award of damages according to a percentage amount related to the decedent’s responsibility. For example, if the decedent did something that contributed to their injury, and both defendant and decedent were 50% at fault for the incident, then the damages will be reduced by 50%.
  • Statutes of Limitations: Each state has its own rules about the time limits and deadlines on filing lawsuits, and this plays into one of the most common defenses to a wrongful death action. Many states require that the lawsuit be filed within 1-3 years after the injury is discovered. If the proper plaintiff does not initiate the lawsuit within the lawfully allowed time period, then the plaintiff completely loses their right to sue. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Wrongful Death Action?

Whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant in a wrongful death action, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney. Your lawyer can help you talk through the situation, determine if you have a valid claim, and protect your rights under the circumstances.

Your lawyer can also ensure that your lawsuit was filed before the statute of limitations expired and represent you in court in order to achieve the best possible outcome for your case.

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