Wrongful death occurs when an individual or entity’s intentional or negligent actions lead to another individual’s death. Unfortunately, wrongful deaths could occur in various circumstances. For instance, medical errors are one of the top causes of death in the U.S. Likewise, more than 42,000 people die in motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. every year, and many of these deaths happen due to negligent drivers.
Regardless of how a person died, grieving and heartbroken families deserve to hold the liable parties responsible for their negligent actions. Families are likewise entitled to compensation for their losses.
What Qualifies as Wrongful Death?
For a wrongful death action to succeed, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s actions led to the death of the victim.
More specifically, the plaintiff must show that the actions of the defendant were:
- Intentional – The defendant intentionally committed actions, such as assault and battery, which led to the victim’s death.
- Negligent – The defendant committed a negligent act or failed to act as any reasonable individual would under the same or similar conditions, such as drinking and then driving.
- Strictly liable – Basically, strict liability means that an individual can be held legally liable for something they did not do. In certain states, for example, a dog owner can be held strictly liable for a dog killing a child, even if the owner was careful and took reasonable precautions.
Who Can File a Claim for Wrongful Death?
Qualified individuals can file an insurance claim or action for wrongful death in court to pursue damages from the liable party whose negligent actions resulted in another individual’s death. In most cases, the plaintiff is a family member of the deceased person, such as the spouse or parent, acting as the deceased individual’s estate representative.
Plaintiffs also typically include the deceased person’s children and others that the court recognizes as the estate’s beneficiaries. However, friends of the deceased person don’t have the legal right to file a wrongful death claim. On the other hand, if the deceased individual left a will that specified an estate administrator or executor, that individual can represent the estate, even if the individual isn’t a family member, in a wrongful death claim.
A claim for wrongful death could name one or several defendants, including:
- A person, such as a negligent doctor or drunk driver
- An entity, such as a nursing home, a hospital, or government agency
- A business owner, such as a shop owner or a bar owner whose establishment served alcohol to a clearly intoxicated driver
- A corporation, such as a car manufacturer that sold defective cars or car parts
It’s also vital to note that some states allow the deceased individual’s extended family to bring a wrongful death claim and seek compensation. Some even allow romantic or intimate partners (even if they’re not spouses) or someone who’s financially dependent on the victim to file a claim for wrongful death.
In other states, however, the victim’s surviving family members may not directly file wrongful death claims. They only allow the victim’s estate executor to file the claim on behalf of the surviving family. Upon the resolution of the case, the compensation awarded goes to the executor, who then can distribute the proceeds to the beneficiaries as appropriate.
What Damages Can You Seek in a Wrongful Death Claim?
In wrongful death claims, plaintiffs seek compensation from negligent parties in the form of monetary or economic damages and non-monetary or non-economic damages. Economic damages typically include monetary values that you can calculate, such as how much money your deceased spouse, for example, would have earned given their work-life expectancy. This can likewise include costs for past medical expenses and funeral expenses.
When determining the financial losses, these factors will come into play:
- The victim’s age,
- The victim’s income before they died
- The victim’s general health
- The living arrangements and age of the victim’s surviving children and other individuals who depend financially on the victim
- The victim’s educational attainment and/or special training/skills
- The victim’s benefits, including health insurance that covers other dependents
Depending on state rules, you may also recover non-economic damages, which are not tangible or easily calculable. These can include the pain and suffering suffered by surviving family and/or the deceased person before the death. This can also include the loss of the victim’s love, care, affection, mentoring, guidance, and moral support. Additionally, surviving spouses can also seek loss of consortium damages, which relates to losing the victim’s intimate companionship.
What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims?
Statutes of limitations rules vary from state to state. Most states give plaintiffs two years to file a wrongful death action. But this can be shorter or longer, depending on the state. In some cases, this time limit could be longer according to the discovery rule. For example, the court may give you more time to file a wrongful death action if your loved one died due to an injury that you only discovered was the cause of death several years after the fact.
Do I Need a Lawyer for a Wrongful Death Claim?
Wrongful death actions are usually high-dollar claims entailing complex laws and litigation. They are likewise time-sensitive. Despite your grief and heartache, the statute of limitations or time limit to file your claim will continue to run. The insurance provider won’t also care about your suffering.
Additionally, wrongful death claims involving multiple defendants, particularly corporate defendants, are immensely tough to litigate. Take note that wrongful death actions require extensive and costly pre-trial discovery, such as depositions, expert witnesses, interrogatories, and actuarial accounting, among others. All these will require advanced funding and legal experience. It is also vital to note that most states impose special rules on handling cases on behalf of surviving children.
If you have a claim for wrongful death, it would be best to speak to a wrongful death lawyer to understand what the legal process entails. Most reputable lawyers don’t charge initial case consultations and represent their clients on a contingency fee arrangement, which means that they will only receive payment when they win the case.