A wrongful death action is a type of claim that can be brought by a family member of a deceased victim against the person who caused their death. While the laws of each state vary regarding which persons can bring the lawsuit, it is usually an immediate family member (e.g., a spouse or parent) of the deceased who files the claim.
A wrongful death lawsuit can also be brought against businesses, government agencies, or other types of organizations; not just individual defendants.
Since wrongful death actions are civil matters, the standard of proof for these claims is lower than in criminal cases. In other words, it is much easier to win a wrongful death lawsuit than it is to get a conviction in a criminal case.
Wrongful death and criminal prosecutions, however, are not mutually exclusive actions. An individual may be sued for a wrongful death in a civil law court and also may be prosecuted in a criminal law court. If both situations occur, a civil suit is normally filed after the criminal matter concludes.
What are the Elements of a Claim for Wrongful Death?
In a wrongful death lawsuit, the survivors bring a claim on behalf of the victim that essentially states that the victim’s death was a result of the defendant’s conduct. In order to prevail on a claim for wrongful death, the survivors must show the following elements exist:
- That the victim’s death was caused by the defendant;
- That the defendant intentionally, recklessly, or negligently caused the victim’s death, or alternatively, that the defendant was strictly liable for the victim’s death;
- The victim is survived by either beneficiaries or dependents; 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 mentioned, it is normally the immediate family members of the person who died (i.e., the “decedent”) who are permitted to sue for wrongful death. Although it depends on the laws of a state, this typically only includes spouses, children, and parents of the deceased victim.
In general, the following people are those who usually bring wrongful death lawsuits:
- Surviving spouses;
- Children of the decedent;
- Dependent parents (i.e., 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 (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 (i.e., 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?
There are numerous scenarios that may lead to a person becoming responsible for another person’s death. Specifically, in a claim for wrongful death, the person’s conduct will usually comport with one of the following actions:
- An intentional act, such as felony murder or other criminal behaviors;
- A negligent or careless act, like a surgery that would have been successful had it been performed properly (e.g., medical malpractice); or
- A reckless act, such as a car accident.
What Damages are Recoverable in a Lawsuit for Wrongful Death?
Family members that sue an individual based on wrongful death can typically recover damages for the following:
- 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 intentional, malicious, or egregious.
How are Damages Evaluated in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
It can be very difficult to determine how much the decedent would have earned if they had not died. To simplify this process, each state has adopted its own unique life expectancy table. These tables have been designed to determine:
- How long the victim would have lived if not for the incident;
- How many more years the victim would have continued to work; and
- How long the victim would have survived during their retirement (if applicable).
The life expectancy table coupled with the victim’s earnings at the time of their death enable a court or jury to estimate both the victim’s loss of earnings and potential retirement benefits.
How Do I File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Each state has a specific “statute of limitations,” which refers to the time frame that a person is permitted to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. If a surviving individual delays past the allotted time period, then they will be prohibited from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit in court.
The clock for the statute of limitations usually starts when the victim dies and continues on for generally at least a year.
If you are looking to bring a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a loved one, you should consult a local attorney to learn more about the timing for when you must bring a claim for wrongful death in your area.
When Must a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Be Filed?
As mentioned above, each state has its own statute of limitations that dictates when the wrongful death lawsuit must be filed. For example:
- California, Illinois, and Texas all require a time frame of two years;
- The District of Columbia and New York have a time period of three years; and
- States like Wyoming and Maine allow up to four or six years, respectively.
In the instance where the cause of death is not discovered until later, a court may allow the statute of limitations to begin running from the date of discovery in the case. This is called “tolling the statute of limitations”.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with a Wrongful Death Claim?
If a loved one of yours has died because of someone else’s wrongdoing, you should contact a local wrongful death attorney. They will be able to determine whether you have a valid claim, what the laws of your state are that pertain to the action, and can help you navigate what rights and remedies are available to you.