Wrongful Death Law
What is Wrongful Death Law?
Wrongful death law applies in tort cases in which the defendantís conduct has resulted in the death of the victim, leaving behind surviving family members and dependents who will suffer as a result of the victimís absence. The purpose of these laws is to compensate the survivors, not the deceased victim. Wrongful death laws are found in modern state statutes. Time limits for filing suit, plaintiff qualifications, and permissible damages vary by state.
Unlike other tort doctrines, wrongful death did not exist at common law. English and early American courts did not recognize these actions. Instead, they followed a rule that said when tort victims died, the right to bring a case died with them. In the last century, lawmakers have come to recognize the injustice of the historical rule. Nowadays, wrongdoers who injure others cannot escape liability simply because the injury was severe enough to kill the victim.
Most jurisdictions distinguish between wrongful death and a related claim known as a survivor action. Both causes of action serve the purpose of holding tortfeasors responsible for their conduct when the victim dies. The difference is that wrongful death cases pay compensation to the victimís family members for their own damages. They can recover for the loss of financial, emotional, and other support the victim had been contributing to the household.
Survival actions, on the other hand, pay for damages suffered by the victim as a result of the defendantís actions. These can include compensation for pain and suffering, medical bills, and other damages that the victim endured between the time of the injury and the time of death. Damages in survival actions are paid to the victimís estate, not to the family, although some of the money may eventually pass to family members as heirs or estate beneficiaries.
Claims for wrongful death arise most often in negligence cases. These are cases in which the defendant was careless, causing an accident or otherwise causing harm to the victim. Examples include automobile accidents and medical malpractice. Wrongful death can also occur as a result of the defendantís intentional conduct, such as homicide. Finally, claims may result in situations involving strict liability, such as defective products or unsafe pharmaceuticals.
Unique Aspects of a Wrongful Death Case
Wrongful death claims are governed by statute. In contrast, negligence and other doctrines that apply in accident cases are products of judge-made law. The difference is important. Statutory causes of action like wrongful death are not as open to interpretation by the courts. State legislatures have debated and enacted specific requirements that plaintiffs must follow in order to be successful. Failing to meet the elements of the statute may result in dismissal.
It is also important to understand the relationship between civil and criminal proceedings brought against a defendant accused of wrongful death. The criminal case will be filed by a public prosecutor on behalf of the state. Charges may include first degree (premeditated) murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and others. The jury must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, and a convicted defendant faces fines, jail, or death.
The civil case is a much different proceeding. It is filed by the victimís family in order to recover money damages for their own benefit. The family must prove the underlying tort, and convince the jury by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning ďmore likely than not.Ē This is a lower burden of proof than the reasonable doubt standard. As such, a defendant may be acquitted of all criminal charges, and still be found liable in a civil wrongful death case.
Family members and dependents considering a wrongful death case must also be aware that the defendant will be investigating the details of their relationship with the victim, and presenting this information in open court. Damages in these cases are based on the victimís contributions to the family. Thus, the defendant can reduce damages by showing the victim spent his or her income on other things, and did not have close emotional ties with the plaintiffs.
Of course, plaintiffs can conduct their own investigation of the defendantís activities, and use the information to bolster their case. This is primarily accomplished through the ďdiscoveryĒ process. During discovery, the defendant can be forced to turn over documents, emails, and other evidence favorable to the plaintiffs. In a case based on negligence, for example, discovery may reveal that the defendant purposefully ignored risks to the victimís safety.
Hiring a Wrongful Death Law Firm
Litigating a wrongful death case requires considerable resources and expertise. Attorneys who handle these cases have the ability to absorb the cost of preparing the case (they are paid only if the plaintiff wins), and they know the nuances of wrongful death law in their state. To learn more, schedule a consultation today.
Know Your Rights!
Articles About Wrongful Death
- Risks Associated with Drowsy DrivingDrowsy driving is one of the most common driving hazards, but new data highlights the dangers associated with drowsy driving. In fact, research shows that drowsy driving is as dangerous as driving while drunk.
- Ten Things You Can Do to Increase Your Recovery After a Motorcycle AccidentIf you are unfortunate enough to suffer injuries and property damage as a result of somebody elseís negligence, the only thing the civil justice system permits by way of recovery is monetary compensation. Similar cases can have different results and, as such, it is important to do everything you can to obtain full value for your damages.
- Roller Coaster Wrongful Death at Higher Rates than Shark DeathsWhile most of us worry about swimming too far off the coast during a summer vacation, we don't realize that we're more at risk on a roller coaster than a shark when venturing outdoors this season.
- Civil Justice for New York Crime VictimsInjured victims of crime can use civil lawsuits to seek justice, hold responsible parties accountable, prevent future crimes, and obtain the financial resources victims need to rebuild their lives.
- Taking Your Motorcycle Accident Case to Small Claims CourtSmall Claims Court may be your only option when trying to recover damages from a motorcycle accident.
- Wrongful Death at Sea: Liability, Non-Pecuniary Damages, and Survivorsí Legal RemediesThe recent U.S. District Court (Western District of Washington) case of Michael Mechling, et al. v. Holland America Line, Inc., highlights two key factors in determining legal remedies for survivors of nonseafaring individuals who suffer fatal injuries at sea.
- Four Elements of a Personal Injury ClaimInjuries that occur as a result of someone else's careless or reckless actions may lead to a personal injury claim. It's important to understand the elements that apply to this type of case: duty of care; failure to exercise reasonable care (negligence); causation; and the presence of damages.
- National Truck Accident StatisticsA variety of factors contribute to truck accidents. Some stem from negligence of a driver (the trucker or another driver), such as speeding or fatigue. Others are the result of faulty or defective equipment, such as tires or brakes. Improper loading is another cause; for instance, cargo thatís unbalanced or not secured.
- CDC Reports that Many Unintentional Injury Deaths Are PreventableAccording to a new study, the five leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and unintentional injuries. On each of those causes of death, the study found that 20 percent to 40 percent could have been prevented.
- Child Traffic Deaths Increase in 2012One of the possible reasons for the increase in child traffic fatalities may be improper or inconsistent use of child restraint systems.
- All Tort and Personal Injury Law Articles
Wrongful Death Law - US
- Calculating Compensation in Cases of Wrongful Death
Death statutes in the United States list elements of loss for which a defendant must make compensatory payment. The element that economists as expert witnesses are called upon to calculate is net income, roughly defined as the decedent's income minus personal expenses.
- Wrongful Death - Overview
- Wrongful Death Claim - Wikipedia
Wrongful death is a claim in common law jurisdictions against a person who can be held liable for a death. The claim is brought in a civil action, usually by close relatives, as enumerated by statute.