Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Wrongful Death Cases: Children, Older Adults, and Vulnerable Adults


When someone dies in an accident, a personal injury case, or medical malpractice, their family may file a wrongful death lawsuit. These cases typically cover any death caused by someone else. This means if someone else is liable for the death, their family may file a wrongful death lawsuit.

Wrongful death claims are heard in civil court and typically brought by the surviving family members. In some states, the party must be a personal representative who files the legal action. They go to court hoping to seek compensation for the legal wrong. Plaintiffs can recover both economic damages and non-economic damages. Economic damages can include the following:

  • Burial, cremation, and funeral expenses
  • Any medical bills before the death
  • Loss of support and household services
  • Lost prospect of inheritance

Non-economic damages may include the following:

  • Loss of companionship
  • Loss of consortium
  • Recovering from the loss of their loved one
  • Emotional distress

In some cases, a court will award punitive damages, which punish a defendant for particularly bad conduct. This category of damages, however, is extremely rare.

Determining Value in a Wrongful Death Suit

The value of the victim's life is hard to measure. Courts currently measure value by the victim's earning potential and several other factors. Setting a price on human life isn't a pleasant task or an exact science. However, courts and juries are required to assign a monetary value to a particular life in these cases. It's unavoidable.

Because of this valuation procedure in wrongful death actions, the death of a child or vulnerable adult may raise difficulties. How does one measure the future financial contributions of a child, vulnerable adult, or retired person?

The courts follow certain guiding principles to accurately assess the value of the victim's life in a wrongful death case.

Loss of a Child

There are metrics that guide the factfinder when determining the financial losses for an adult who died during their earning years. In a wrongful death of a child case, however, loss is not measured solely by financial earnings. It is also measured by the potential childrearing services, love, nurturing, and companionship elements of an adult relationship.

For example, let's say a parent dies in a car accident. Their child may seek damages for the loss of their parent's income and the loss of their care and guidance. They can pursue damages for the loss of earning capacity.

When a child dies, on the other hand, the parents' recovery is limited solely to their financial loss. This is usually relatively small.

Financial losses due to the death of a child are determined by the child's:

  • Age
  • Estimated life expectancy and work expectancy
  • State of health before death
  • Habits
  • Estimated earning potential

It also considers elements of the family or loved ones, such as:

  • Relationship of the decedent to those claiming the loss
  • Health, age, and circumstances of those claiming losses

The younger a child is at the time of their death, the harder it is to reach a dollar figure. There is a substantial difference between a minor child and an adult child due to the difficulty of attaching the dollar amount for future earnings. It's easier to speculate on the earning potential of an 18-year-old high-performing student enrolled in a top university program than the earning potential of that same child at ten.

A jury may consider what the child would have contributed to the parents' support. This, however, cannot be speculative. Juries often use work-life expectancy tables as a starting point for calculations.

Rules against jury speculation don't necessarily limit parents to small recoveries, but in general courts give relatively small damage awards for the deaths of children.

Loss of a Fetus

State wrongful death laws vary on whether you can bring a wrongful death action over the loss of an unborn fetus. Many states require that a child be born alive for their death to qualify for a wrongful death action. In those states, a wrongful death case is not available for the death of a fetus.

In other states, the death of a fetus may be actionable if the unborn child was viable at the time of death. A qualified local wrongful death attorney can advise you on the laws of your state and whether, according to local law, you can sue for wrongful death in this type of situation.

Loss of an Older Adult

In the same way that the death of a child might not produce a large damage award, the death of an elderly person also has limited recovery potential. It is common for the surviving spouse and any surviving children to file a wrongful death suit for older adults.

Older adults often receive lower awards due to several factors:

  • It's often assumed someone at or beyond retirement age no longer has significant earning potential
  • The children of older adults are usually adults who no longer need significant guidance, support, or nurturing from their parents

The undervaluation of older adults in wrongful death actions is a controversial topic. Some scholars assert it's the natural result of a system operating under the Valuation by Human Capital approach.

Wrongful death cases can happen in many circumstances for an older adult. Older adults aren't always supervised as closely as children or babies. Nursing home abuse, violence, or neglect from nursing home staff can lead to death. Care facilities can also miss common causes of trouble and problems like bedsores, malnutrition, or not catching medication errors.

Mistakes or lack of proper care from hospital staff members can also lead to medical malpractice. Wrongful death attorneys can provide legal advice for deaths in hospitals or assisted living facilities.

Getting Help From a Wrongful Death Attorney

Wrongful death lawyers, a specialized category of personal injury attorneys, typically provide free case evaluations. Seek the assistance of a qualified attorney to determine whether you can bring a wrongful death action for the death of a child or an older adult.

States have a statute of limitations limiting the time limit you have to bring a case. If you are within the time limit, an attorney can help estimate the damages you might be entitled to and explain your legal options.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified personal injury attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options