In legal terms, wrongful death generally refers to a lawsuit brought by the decedent’s family against the person who is responsible for the victim’s death. The victim’s family is suing someone for causing the death of their loved one. A wrongful death lawsuit can be brought against businesses, government agencies, or other organizations.
Thus, a wrongful death lawsuit is not limited to just individuals. It is typically easier to win a wrongful death suit than it would be to obtain a conviction for a criminal case. This is due to the fact that the standard of proof for wrongful death is lower than criminal cases. However, wrongful death and criminal prosecution are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A person may be sued for wrongful death in civil court, and then be brought to stand trial in a criminal court.
Some common examples of when a person may be responsible for another person’s wrongful death include:
- Negligent or careless acts that directly lead to the victim’s death;
- A single reckless act; or
- An intentional act, as in the defendant intended for their action to cause the victim’s wrongful death.
In order to succeed in a wrongful death suit, the survivor bringing the suit must prove:
- The the victim’s death was caused by the defendant;
- The defendant either intentionally, negligently, or recklessly caused the victim’s death, or that the defendant was strictly liable for the victim’s death;
- There are surviving beneficiaries or dependants; and
- The victim’s death has caused measurable monetary damages to the surviving beneficiaries, or dependents.
Wrongful death claims often involve claims for complex calculations of damages, as the plaintiff may be claiming various losses. An example of this would be loss of consortium, or loss of income. As such, many wrongful death cases end with a settlement. This happens so both parties can save time and resources by avoiding undergoing the full trial process. A settlement may happen fairly early on in the legal proceedings, such as at the beginning of the trial.
What Damages May Be Available In a Wrongful Death Settlement?
The most common damages that may be recovered for wrongful death include:
- Medical and funeral expenses;
- Loss of earnings or benefits;
- Loss of inheritance due to an untimely death;
- Loss of care, protection, and companionship to survivors; and
- Pain and suffering on the part of the survivors.
Some wrongful death suits also include punitive damages. This is generally reserved for cases in which the defendant’s conduct was intentional, repeated, or particularly reckless or egregious. Punitive damages are issued according to the court’s discretion, and as such, they are not automatically included in a private settlement. These damages are intended to punish the defendant and dissuade them from the same or similar conduct in the future.
How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Calculated?
A wrongful death settlement agreement is generally calculated based on various factors, including:
- The plaintiff’s relationship with the decedent;
- If the decedent was helping to financially support the plaintiff during their life;
- Whether the plaintiff was jointly claiming benefits with the decedent, such as medical benefits or retirement benefits; and
- Subjective factors such as costs associated with the decedent’s protection of the plaintiff, or their financial contributions to business or academic relations.
An expert witness may sometimes be brought in in order to assist with the calculation process. Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to determine how much a victim would have earned had they not died when they did. In order to simplify the process of determining a settlement, each state has adopted a life expectancy table.
These tables were designed to calculate:
- How long the victim likely would have lived;
- How many years the victim likely would have continued to work; and
- How long the victim likely would have lived in retirement, if applicable.
Using the life expectancy table and the victim’s earnings at the time of their death, the court is able to estimate the victim’s loss of earnings and potential retirement benefits. All of this will be considered in addition to the previously mentioned factors.
Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death?
Immediate family members of the decedent are the most common parties to sue for wrongful death. The typical order of those who bring wrongful death suits is:
- Surviving spouse;
- Dependent parents, as in any parent who lived with the decedent and/or relied upon them for most or all of their financial support;
- Personal representative or designated heir;
- Putative spouse, or a surviving spouse whose marriage to the decedent was not valid, but the court recognizes that the spouse maintained a good faith belief that their marriage was valid;
- Domestic partner, if the partnership was registered with the state in which the partners lived; or
- Minor living with the decedent, who is not their biological or adoptive child, but depended on the decedent for financial support.
Do I Need an Attorney for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Wrongful death claims are very complex cases. Therefore, if you believe that your loved one’s death was wrongful, it is in your best interests to immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable wrongful death attorney.
An experienced wrongful death attorney can help determine your legal options, calculate settlement figures, and file a lawsuit on your behalf. Additionally, an attorney can represent you in court or any other proceedings as needed.