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What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Being injured because of another person's carelessness or negligence is bad enough. When a loved one dies, survivors feel anger, grief, and confusion. They want the responsible party held accountable for their family member's death. During this difficult time, many people consider legal action.

These actions are wrongful death claims. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the victim's family may sue the individual or entity legally at fault for the victim's death. Wrongful death claims cannot bring the victim back and will not hold the defendant criminally liable, but they can give family members some monetary compensation for the death of a loved one.

What Is Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death is any death caused by “the negligent, willful, or wrongful act, neglect, omission, or default of another." A wrongful death claim resembles a personal injury claim, except that it is not brought by the victim but by the victim's family or estate.

Each state has its own wrongful death statutes. Wrongful death laws define who may sue for wrongful death and the limits on damages. The statute of limitations—the time survivors must bring the case—varies from one to three years in most states.

Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death?

Most state laws limit recovery in wrongful death cases to immediate family members, surviving spouses, children, and parents. The requirements differ from those considered heirs under the will or the state intestacy laws. For instance, a non-family member who is a named beneficiary of a will cannot file a wrongful death suit. However, the personal representative can file suit on behalf of the decedent's estate. Any damages recovered are then distributed according to the will or state laws for intestacy.

Types of Wrongful Death Cases

Wrongful death suits often appear after or in addition to other personal injury cases. Proving negligence is the first step in all cases. The plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to the victim, breached the duty, and caused an injury resulting in death. The difference is that the remaining victims are due compensation for their loss. Some types of accidents may require the victim die within a year of the date of the accident in order to file a wrongful death claim.

There are a number of legal practice areas that overlap with wrongful death. Types of cases that lead to wrongful death suits include:

  • Criminal trials, with or without a guilty verdict: Civil trials have a lower burden of proof than criminal trials, so it is possible to get a verdict of “responsible for causing the death" even if the defendant was not guilty in the criminal trial.
  • Motor vehicle accidents: Car accidents, especially DUIs and traffic accidents, leave survivors frustrated because fatal accidents rarely rise to the level of crimes. Civil wrongful death claims can provide some financial compensation as an alternative.
  • Workplace accidents: Employers have a duty of care to their employees to provide a safe workplace free of hazards. A breach of this duty can lead to wrongful death suits.
  • Product liability: Defective products that result in injury or death are often the subject of mass torts or class action suits. Family members may be able to join these suits as part of a wrongful death action.
  • Medical malpractice: When medical care leads to death, surviving family members have unanswered questions and extensive medical bills. A wrongful death settlement can resolve both the questions and the medical expenses left by the death of a loved one.

Wrongful Death Damages

Wrongful death claims are civil actions, not criminal cases. There is no finding of guilt as in a criminal case. Although one or more parties may be liable for causing the victim's death, that is not the same as finding them guilty. The plaintiffs in a case receive financial damages for their claim.

At one time, wrongful death claims ensured that widows and orphans of a deceased person would have financial support if the decedent had no estate. Today, they provide some financial compensation to survivors and a measure of justice to the negligent party.

Most states limit damages in a wrongful death claim to:

  • Economic damages such as the loss of the decedent's income or future income, medical expenses that the survivors paid, funeral expenses, and other monetary costs
  • Non-economic damages including loss of consortium (loss of companionship of a spouse), parental loss, and emotional suffering

Most states do not award punitive damages in a wrongful death suit. Punitive damages are awarded in a personal injury case where the defendant's conduct was grossly negligent but did not rise to criminal conduct. A wrongful death attorney can tell you what the laws are in your state.

Hiring a Wrongful Death Lawyer

Very few wrongful death lawsuits go before a jury. Personal injury lawyers and insurance companies prefer negotiating settlements in all parties' interests rather than rolling the dice with a jury. Given the complexity of the legal system, you might want to have a skilled lawyer on your side.

If you have experienced a wrongful death in your family and want legal advice, you should consider consulting an experienced personal injury attorney. They'll make sure you begin the legal process in time to beat the statute of limitations, help you gather evidence, and negotiate on your behalf. 

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