Wrongful death refers to a lawsuit brought by a family member of a deceased victim, against the person who caused the victim’s death. In order to be considered a wrongful death, the victim must have died as the result of the wrongful action or negligence of another person or company. A wrongful death lawsuit may also be brought against governments agencies, businesses, or other organizations. Each state in the U.S. has its own laws regarding wrongful death.
In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff brings a claim that the victim’s death was a result of the defendant’s actions or negligence. Once again, each state has its own laws regarding the requirements for a wrongful death suit. However, most states require the following elements be present for a wrongful death claim:
- A human being died;
- As a result of another’s negligence or intention to cause harm; and
- The survivors of the deceased have suffered monetary loss as a result of the victim’s death.
To expand upon those elements, the party bringing the wrongful death claim will likely need to prove:
- That the victim’s death was in fact caused by the defendant;
- That the defendant intentionally, recklessly, or negligently caused the victim’s death, or that the defendant was strictly liable for the victim’s death;
- That there are surviving beneficiaries or dependents; and
- That the victim’s death has caused monetary damages to the surviving beneficiaries or dependents.
Bringing both criminal charges against the person or entity responsible for the victim’s death, and filing a civil wrongful death suit, are both allowed to be brought against the guilty party. One does not preclude the other. This means that the plaintiff is not stopped from bringing both civil and criminal charges for the same incident. A wrongful death action would be a civil lawsuit, for which the standard for proof is lower than that required for proving a criminal action.
As previously mentioned, in order for a death to be considered wrongful, specific elements must be met. Some of the most common reasons a person would file a wrongful death suit include:
- Deaths that result from medical malpractice;
- Car accidents in which the defendant driver survives and is sued;
- Exposure to hazardous substances;
- Exposure to hazardous conditions while on the job;
- Murder; and
- Other criminal behaviors that lead to the victim’s death.
What Are Some Common Damages Awarded In a Wrongful Death Suit? How and When Must a Suit Be Filed?
Family members who sue for a wrongful death may be awarded damages for:
- Death related expenses, including medical bills and funeral costs. It is important to note that some states consider this to be a separate issue that must be handled with a separate lawsuit;
- Loss of companionship, also known as loss of consortium;
- Loss of decedent’s future earnings or benefits;
- Loss of inheritance because of the untimely death; and
- Punitive damages, if the wrongful conduct was intentional.
Damages are generally difficult to calculate, because the court is essentially determining how much the victim would have earned had they not died. Each state utilizes a life expectancy table, which have been designed to determine:
- How long the victim could have lived;
- How many years the victim would have continued to work; and
- How long the victim would have lived in retirement, if applicable.
In addition to a life expectancy table, courts will use the victim’s earnings at the time of death. The court or jury can then estimate the victim’s loss of earnings as well as potential retirement benefits.
In order to file a wrongful death suit, the plaintiff will need to be aware of their state’s statute of limitations (filing deadline). Although each state has their own, it generally begins when the person dies and continues for at least one year. If the cause of death is not discovered until later, the court may allow the statute of limitations to begin its running time from the date of discovery. This idea is referred to as Tolling the Statute of Limitations.
Who May Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Not just anyone may bring a wrongful death lawsuit, although there are several parties who may. These people must have had a close and personal relationship with the decedent. Therefore, most wrongful death suits are brought by:
- The surviving spouse;
- The decedent’s children;
- Any dependent parents, if the parent lived with the decedent and/or relied upon the decedent for most or all of their financial support;
- Personal representative or designated heirs;
- Putative spouse, or a spouse who was not legally married to the decedent but the court finds that the spouse had good faith belief that their marriage was indeed valid;
- Domestic partner, if the domestic partner is registered with the state in which the partners lived; or
- A minor living with the decedent, who was not their child, and who depended upon the decedent for financial support.
Once again, state laws may vary on the subject. Some states allow only the personal representative of the decedent to bring a wrongful death action in court. Any money that is then recovered will be placed into a special account, or trust, in order to be distributed to the previously mentioned parties.
Do I Need an Attorney For a Wrongful Death Suit?
If you have lost a family member or loved one to wrongful death, it is in your best interest to consult with a skilled and knowledgeable wrongful death attorney. An experienced attorney can help you determine if their death was in fact wrongful, as well as help you through the legal process. Finally, they can represent you in any necessary court hearings, and file any necessary legal documents.