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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, meaning they were liable for the death.

Wrongful death claims are heard in civil court and typically brought by the surviving family members. They go to court hoping to win “pecuniary losses," which is money to help compensate for:

  • Burial and funeral expenses
  • Emotional distress
  • Any medical bills before the death
  • Loss of companionship
  • Recovering from the loss of their loved one
  • Lost wages from the deceased person's livelihood

In some cases, a court will award “punitive damages," which punish a defendant for particularly bad conduct.

Determining Value Owed 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, but it's one that courts and juries are required to do in these sorts of cases.

Because of this price-setting 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 lost financial value of these types of deaths.

Loss of a Child

Financial loss is relatively easy to assess when an earning adult dies. But even so, a wrongful death 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.

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 pecuniary loss
  • Health, age, and circumstances of those claiming pecuniary losses

Many of these assessments are simply speculation. The younger a child is at the time of their death, the harder it becomes to find a dollar figure.

For example, it is easier to speculate on the earning potential of an 18-year-old high-performing student enrolled in a top university program. It is harder to speculate on the earning potential of that same child at the age of ten.

A jury may consider what the child would have contributed to the parents' support, but this cannot be pure guesswork. 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. However, courts generally give relatively small damage awards for the deaths of children.

Loss of a Fetus

States 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, the death of a fetus is not a valid justification for a case.

In other states, the death of a fetus may be actionable if the unborn child was viable at the time of death.

qualified local wrongful death attorney will be able to 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 award of damages, the death of an older adult also has limited recovery potential.

Modest awards for the deaths of older adults are due to several factors:

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

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

Wrongful death cases can, unfortunately, 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 problems like bedsores, malnutrition, or not catching medication errors.

Health care 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 due to hospitals or assisted living facilities.

Getting Help From a Wrongful Death Attorney

Seek the assistance of a qualified attorney to help determine whether you will be able to bring a wrongful death action for the death of a child or an older adult.

States have a statute of limitations, which is 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 in your case.

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