A loved one’s loss will always break your heart. The pain becomes even more profound when it's due to the negligence of another party. In certain cases, this may result in a wrongful death claim.
Understanding the complex legal aspects of a wrongful death claim is of the utmost importance when seeking justice for your loved one. Let's take a closer look at how you can navigate wrongful death claims and get the compensation you deserve with the help of an experienced wrongful death lawyer at Rawlins Law, APC.
Legal Basis for Wrongful Death Claims
Wrongful death laws have their roots in common law and now recognize the needs of those that a deceased person leaves behind.
Historically, the common law did not provide a cause of action for the survivor of a deceased person who died as a result of someone else's negligence or wrongful conduct. In response to this gap in the law, modern statutory wrongful death provisions are in place to provide a way for surviving family members or the deceased's estate to seek compensation.
Difference Between Wrongful Death and Criminal Homicide
A wrongful death is a civil claim. The surviving family members or the deceased's estate can file it against the responsible party for monetary compensation.
Criminal homicide, on the other hand, is a criminal charge a government brings against the individual responsible for the death. In a criminal case, the accused may face imprisonment or other penalties, while a wrongful death claim solely concerns financial compensation.
Jurisdictional Variations in Wrongful Death Statutes
The specifics of wrongful death laws can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another. Each state has unique statutes and rules for handling these cases.
Differences can include the eligibility of parties to file the lawsuit, the damages you can recover, and the statute of limitations for filing a claim.
For example, in California, the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death claim is two years, and in nearby Oregon, it's three. When you consult an experienced local personal injury attorney, they can advise you on the specific laws and procedures that apply in your jurisdiction.
Depending on the state you live in, several parties can file a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
Personal Representatives of the Deceased Person's Estate
In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff is usually the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. This individual manages the decedent's assets and carries out their final wishes. If the decedent doesn't nominate a personal representative in their will or estate plan, it becomes the responsibility of the court to appoint them.
Close Family Members
In some jurisdictions, close family members, such as spouses, children, or parents of the deceased, have the legal standing to bring a wrongful death claim. The specific parties who can file a claim vary by state.
Who Can You Sue for a Wrongful Death?
Filing a successful wrongful death claim requires you to identify the at-fault party. In some cases, this is obvious. In others, your attorney may have to conduct an in-depth investigation to ensure you're suing the appropriate person or company. This may involve two or more parties.
You can hold companies liable for wrongful death if their negligence or misconduct contributes to the death of an individual. This could include a manufacturer of a defective product that causes a fatality, an employer that fails to provide a safe working environment resulting in a worker's death, or a corporation whose negligence leads to a catastrophic accident.
In some cases, you can hold government entities liable for wrongful death. For example, a government agency that fails to maintain a safe road or infrastructure, resulting in a fatal accident, could face a wrongful death claim.
Lawsuits against government entities often involve unique procedural requirements and limitations on damages, making consultation with an experienced attorney crucial.
Establishing a Wrongful Death Claim
To establish a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must prove:
Duty of care: The defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased person. This creates a legal obligation for the defendant to act with reasonable care to avoid harming the decedent.
Breach of duty: The defendant breached their duty of care by acting negligently or intentionally and failing to meet the standard of reasonable care.
Causation: The defendant's breach of duty was the proximate cause of the deceased person's death. In other words, the plaintiff must show that the death was the direct result of the defendant's actions or inactions.
Damages: As a result of the defendant's wrongful conduct, the deceased person's estate and/or surviving family members suffered measurable damages, such as lost income, medical expenses, funeral costs, and emotional distress.
Damages in Wrongful Death Claims
While the financial compensation you can receive in a wrongful death case won't make up for lost time with your loved one, it can help relieve some of the financial burden associated with their passing. The types of damages you can recover include:
Economic damages compensate for the financial losses you incur as a result of the death.
These damages can include:
Loss of income: Compensation for the loss of the decedent's future earnings, including salaries and benefits.
Funeral expenses: Reimbursement for the costs of the decedent's funeral and burial services.
Medical bills: Compensation for any medical expenses related to the deceased person's final illness or injury, such as hospital bills, doctor fees, and medication costs.
Non-economic damages address the intangible losses you suffer due to a wrongful death.
These damages can include:
Pain and suffering: Compensation for the grief, sorrow, and emotional pain you experience as a result of the loss.
Loss of companionship: Compensation for the loss of the deceased person's love, support, guidance, and companionship.
Emotional distress: Compensation for the emotional trauma you experience due to the wrongful death.
If the case proceeds to court, the judge may award punitive damages. These damages punish the defendant for their particularly egregious misconduct and deter similar behavior.
Factors Affecting Damage Awards
The specific amount of damages you receive in a wrongful death claim can vary significantly depending on factors such as the decedent's age, income, and health at the time of death.
Other considerations include the number and relationship of the surviving family members and the nature of the defendant's wrongful conduct—or reason for punitive damages.
Valuing a claim is a nuanced and imperfect practice. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you evaluate the potential value of a wrongful death claim and advocate for fair compensation on your behalf.
The Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations states how much time you have to file a wrongful death lawsuit. If you don't file a lawsuit within this time frame, you could lose the right to seek compensation.
While some exceptions to this law exist, postponing legal action usually harms the strength of your case. The time limits for filing wrongful death lawsuits against the government can be shorter. For example, in California, you only have six months to file the initial claim.
Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations
Some exceptions to the statutes of limitations apply in specific situations. For example, some jurisdictions allow for the tolling or pausing of the statute of limitations if the plaintiff is a minor or is mentally incapacitated.
Additionally, in cases where there is intentional concealment of the defendant's wrongful conduct, an extension of the statute of limitations may allow the plaintiff more time to discover the wrongful death and file their claim. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you determine if any exceptions apply to your case; however, timely filing of the wrongful death claim improves your chances of recovering fair compensation.
Survival actions are separate from wrongful death claims. Their goal is to seek compensation for damages payable to the decedent if they survived the incident that caused their death. You can file a survival action if your loved one didn't die immediately after the incident causing their fatal injuries.
Essentially, a survival action allows the deceased person's estate to pursue a personal injury claim on behalf of the decedent. This type of claim focuses on the damages the deceased experienced before their death, such as pain and suffering, medical expenses, and lost income.
Differences Between Survival Actions and Wrongful Death Claims
Although survival actions and wrongful death claims involve seeking compensation for damages related to the deceased person's death, there are crucial differences between the two types of claims.
A wrongful death claim is a legal action that surviving family members or personal representatives of the deceased person's estate take to seek compensation for the losses they suffered as a result of the death. Examples include lost income, funeral expenses, and loss of companionship.
In contrast, a survival action is a claim on behalf of the deceased person's estate to recover damages payable to the decedent if they survived, such as pain and suffering and medical expenses up until the time of death.
Additionally, damage awards in survival actions typically become part of the deceased person's estate and are subject to distribution according to the terms of their will or state intestacy laws. Meanwhile, compensation in wrongful death claims typically goes directly to the eligible surviving family members.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Given the complexities of wrongful death claims and the potential variations in laws across jurisdictions, you may need to consult an experienced personal injury lawyer who can guide you on the specific statutes, legal principles, and procedural requirements applicable to a particular case.
An attorney can establish a wrongful death claim, gather evidence, negotiate with insurance companies, and help you and other surviving family members receive the maximum compensation possible for your loss.
Without an attorney, getting the money you deserve is almost impossible. Even the most straightforward wrongful death case can turn into a lengthy legal process with thousands of nuances. Navigating this process requires comprehensive legal assistance.
Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Understanding wrongful death claims and the legal framework surrounding them is crucial when seeking justice and compensation for the loss of a loved one.
These lawsuits involve various legal concepts, such as the elements of a wrongful death claim, the burden of proof, the types of damages payable, and statutes of limitations.
A successful wrongful death claim can provide much-needed financial support and a sense of justice. The compensation helps to cover funeral expenses, medical bills, and lost income, and it may also help ease the burden of emotional suffering, loss of companionship, and other non-economic damages you experience.
By pursuing a wrongful death claim, you can hold those responsible for the death accountable and seek the justice you deserve.