A wrongful death lawsuit is a type of lawsuit that is brought by a family member of a deceased individual against the individual who caused their death. Wrongful death lawsuits may also be filed against the party responsible for the individual who caused the death, for example, insurers or employers.
Although the laws of each state vary regarding what individuals are permitted to bring the lawsuit, it is typically an immediate family member, for example, a spouse or parent, of the deceased who files the claim. Wrongful death lawsuits may also be brought against:
- Government agencies; or
- Other types of organizations.
Because a wrongful death action is a civil matter, the standard of proof for this type of claim is lower than in a criminal case. In other words, winning a wrongful death lawsuit is easier than getting a criminal conviction.
It is important to note that criminal prosecutions and wrongful death actions are not mutually exclusive. In other words, an individual may face both claims for the same conduct.
An individual may be sued for wrongful death in a civil court, and they can also be prosecuted in a criminal court. If both of these cases are pursued, a civil suit is typically filed after the criminal matter concludes.
What are the Elements of a Claim for Wrongful Death?
When a wrongful death lawsuit is filed, a survivor of the decedent brings a claim on behalf of the victim that states that the victim’s death was a result of the defendant’s conduct. In order to prevail in a claim for wrongful death, the survivor must show the following elements:
- The defendant caused the victim’s death;
- That the defendant caused the victim’s death:
- negligently, or alternatively,
- that the defendant was strictly liable for the victim’s death;
- Either dependents or beneficiaries survive the victim; and
- The victim’s death has impacted any surviving beneficiaries or dependents in such a way as to cause monetary damages to them.
Who can Sue for Wrongful Death?
As previously discussed, it is typically an immediate family member of the individual who died, or the decedent, who is permitted to sue for wrongful death. Although this will depend on the law of the state, this typically only includes:
- Children; and
Generally, the following individuals are those who typically bring a wrongful death lawsuit:
- Surviving spouses;
- Children of the decedent;
- Dependent parents, or the parent who lived with the deceased and relied upon the decedent for most or all financial support;
- Personal representatives or designated heirs;
- Domestic partners;
- It is important to note that the domestic partnership must be registered with the state where the partners live and now extends to all types of couples, not just same-sex couples;
- Putative spouses, or a surviving spouse whose marriage to the deceased was not valid, but a court could find that the spouse had a good faith belief that their marriage was in fact valid; and
- Minors, aside from their biological or adoptive children, who were living with the deceased and were dependent on them for financial support.
What Actions May Lead to a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Many scenarios may lead to an individual becoming responsible for another individual’s death. In a case of wrongful death, specifically, an individual’s conduct will typically include one of the following actions:
- An intentional act, for example, a felony murder or another criminal offense;
- A negligent act, like surgery that would have been successful had it been performed properly, for example, medical malpractice; or
- A reckless act, such as a car accident.
Can I Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit for a Fatal Car Accident?
Yes, an individual can bring a wrongful death lawsuit in connection with a fatal car accident. In general, however, these types of lawsuits can only be brought by an immediate family member of the victim.
In some states, extended family members can also bring wrongful death lawsuits.
What are the Requirements for a Wrongful Death Suit?
The following elements must be proven to prevail in a wrongful death lawsuit that arises from a fatal car accident:
- The accident must have been caused by someone other than the deceased victim;
- The accident must have been the result of negligent, reckless, or intentional bad driving on the part of the at-fault driver;
- The suit must be brought before the statute of limitations has run; and
- The at-fault party must be adequately insured.
What if the Other Driver was Uninsured or Underinsured?
If the party at fault were not insured, it would be nearly impossible to secure compensation for a victim’s family unless the at-fault party has significant assets. Although car insurance is the most common and best source of compensation for a victim, it may also be possible for a victim’s family to recover money from homeowners’ insurance or business insurance policies.
What Damages are Recoverable in a Lawsuit for Wrongful Death?
Family members who sue another party based on wrongful death can typically recover damages for:
- Medical expenses and costs for funeral arrangements;
- Loss of earnings;
- Loss of inheritance due to the untimely death of the decedent;
- Loss of benefits;
- Loss of care, protection, and companionship to survivors;
- Pain and suffering caused to the survivors; and
- Less common, punitive damages where the defendant’s conduct was:
- malicious; or
How are Damages Evaluated in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
It can be difficult to determine how much income a decedent would have earned had they not passed away. Every state has adopted its own life expectancy table to simplify the process.
These life expectancy tables have been designed to determine the following:
- How long the victim would have lived if not for the incident;
- How many more years the decedent would have worked; and
- How long the victim would have survived into retirement, if applicable.
In addition to the victim’s earnings at the time of their death, a life expectancy table will enable a court or jury to estimate the victim’s loss of earnings and their potential retirement benefits.
When Must a Wrongful Death Lawsuit be Filed?
As previously noted, each state has a statute of limitations that dictates when a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed. Examples of specific states’ statutes of limitations include:
- 2 years in:
- Illinois; and
- 3 years in:
- The District of Columbia; and
- New York;
- Up to 4 or 6 years in:
- Wyoming and Maine, respectively.
If the victim’s cause of death is not discovered until a later time, a court may allow the statute of limitations to begin running from the date of the discovery. This is referred to as tolling the statute of limitations.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
If one of your loved ones passes away due to another individual’s bad driving, you should consult with a wrongful death lawyer in your area as soon as possible to ensure your rights and remedies are preserved.
Your lawyer can represent you during the lawsuit and help you navigate the complex legal process. They can also keep you updated if there are any legal changes or developments that might affect your case.