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How to Prove Fault in a Wrongful Death Case

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

If you lost a loved one due to the negligence or deliberate misconduct of another, you can sue for wrongful death. To succeed in such a claim you have to prove that the death was caused by another person's action or inaction and that there was no unforeseeable intervening cause.

Proving fault is not always straightforward, and of course there are defenses to claims of negligence. But there are certainly cases when a defendant is found guilty of wrongful death, despite being found not guilty in a criminal trial, as most famously illustrated by OJ Simpson. Let's examine the elements of a wrongful death claim.

Elements of Wrongful Death

To prevail in a wrongful death suit, the plaintiff must show four things:

  • The death of a human being.
  • That death was caused by the negligence of another or with intent to cause harm.
  • There are surviving family members who experienced monetary injury as a result of the death and can be compensated.
  • A personal representative of the decedent's estate has been appointed.

Some of these elements are straightforward. The death of another should be easy enough to prove -- but what is more complicated is showing that the death of another was caused by the defendant's negligence. Causation is always the most complicated aspect of any negligence claim, as it is made up of two parts, actual and proximate cause.

To show causation, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant's negligence actually caused the death and that any other was occurrence that contributed to the circumstances was reasonably foreseeable. For example, it is reasonably foreseeable that weather might get bad and that a plane may crash as a result. Airlines are expected to have contingencies for that.

It is not, however, reasonably foreseeable that a space ship would crash into an airplane. If your wrongful death claim is based on that occurrence, you may have more trouble proving fault than when death is associated with a more commonplace event.

Talk to a Lawyer

Wrongful death is essentially a negligence claim made on behalf of a deceased person, allowed by state statute based on a close relationship between the plaintiff and the deceased. Not every family member can make the claim -- check your state statutes to find out more about the law, or better yet, speak to a lawyer. Many attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.

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