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District of Columbia Wrongful Death Laws

The District of Columbia, like any other major metropolitan area, has its fair share of accidental deaths. Whether resulting from car crashes on the famous Beltway or workplace accidents, residents in the nation's capital sometimes face the unexpected loss of loved ones and the difficult rebuilding that follows. In those situations, it's important to understand what rights a family may have under the law. Below is a general overview of wrongful death laws in the District of Columbia.

How do You File a D.C. Wrongful Death Case?

Normally, victims of an injury are the ones to bring an action for damages, but with wrongful death laws, actions can be filed on their behalf. In the District of Columbia, for example, the law allows the personal representative of a victim's estate to file a wrongful death action. This is usually the person named as the executor or administrator of the estate.

In making a claim, an estate needs to show that the death was:

  • Caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of a person or corporation; and
  • The victim would have been entitled to damages had he or she lived.

While a wrongful death action tends to address damages after the victim's death, an estate can also file a survival action as a companion claim to cover damages leading up to death, such as a victim's pain and suffering.

Allocation of Damages to Family Members

Although brought by the personal representative of an estate, when damages are awarded in a wrongful death case, they are allocated to family members based on findings of their respective losses. So, for example, where a judge or jury finds that 70% of a wrongful death award is based on a widow's losses and 30% is based on those of the decedent's children, the award is paid to each party according to their respective percentage.

Wrongful Death Claims Against the Federal Government

Another important feature of D.C. is that it's home to governmental agencies often sued for wrongful death. These types of cases might involve claims of medical malpractice against the Department of Veterans Affairs or even claims by family members of drone strike victims seeking redress from the U.S. government.

Cases naming the federal government as a defendant are filed in federal court and usually under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). While they aren't governed by D.C. wrongful death laws, there are areas where the FTCA relies on the District's laws. For example, under the FTCA, claims can only be brought:

[W]here the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.

Therefore, there are situations where D.C. wrongful death laws could determine whether the federal government might be liable under the FTCA.

District of Columbia Wrongful Death Laws at a Glance

For more information on specific District of Columbia wrongful death laws, consult the chart below.


District of Columbia Code Section 12-101 (authorizing survival actions)

District of Columbia Code Section 16-2701 (authorizing wrongful death actions)

District of Columbia Code Section 16-2702 (identifying who can file wrongful death actions and the statute of limitations)

District of Columbia Code Section 16-2703 (protecting any wrongful death awards from creditors of a decedent's estate)

28 U.S. Code Section 1346 (describing the jurisdiction for claims against the federal government)

28 U.S. Code Section 2401 (providing the statute of limitations for federal claims)

Who May Bring an Action?

The personal representative of the decedent's estate can bring a wrongful death claim.

What Damages are Recoverable?

Among the common damages awarded in wrongful death cases are:

  • Medical bills
  • Funeral expenses
  • Lost wages/benefits
  • Loss of other support contributions
Statute of Limitations

Under district law and federal law, wrongful death cases must be brought within two years after the death.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

District of Columbia Wrongful Death Laws: Related Resources

Questions? Get an Evaluation of Your Wrongful Death Case

Losing a loved one, especially someone that you depend on, can be traumatic especially if the death was avoidable. In those cases, the District of Columbia has a legal mechanism in place to help provide some compensation for your loss. Learn more about your rights by contacting an experienced personal injury attorney for an initial evaluation of your case.

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