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
- Bystanders Injured in Police PursuitsWhen police suspect criminal activity is afoot, a police pursuit may give rise. While the law enforcement officer is attempting to capture a criminal, sometimes innocent people wind up injured because of such pursuits. When this occurs, questions arise as to the liability of the parties involved.
- Common Injury Claim MistakesA person who suffers an injury in any type of accident can often feel overwhelmed.
- Proving Fault in a Wrongful Death ClaimWhen a person is killed as a result of another personís negligent act, the survivors of the victims may file a wrongful death claim as part of a civil lawsuit.
- Walk This Way: Pedestrian Accident PreventionBetween 2009 and 2014, the number of pedestrian deaths in the United States grew by 19 percent, far outpacing the number of total traffic deaths (which only grew by 4 percent). Florida was once again listed among the top states for pedestrian deaths nationwide. As the number of cars on the road increase and distracted driving becomes a more prevalent issue, this trend may continue to worsen.
- Survivors Must Establish Fault To Prevail in CourtMourning the death of a loved one is difficult under any circumstances, but when the loss is the fault of a third party, the process can be immeasurably more painful.
- Dealing with Injuries Stemming from Distracted DrivingMany see distracted driving as acceptable in todayís society. The rise of cell phones means that people regularly drive while talking, texting, taking a selfie, or tweeting. While people often see this conduct as acceptable, the fact of the matter is that it can result in extreme injuries such as head trauma, spine damage, paralysis, or even wrongful death. I will explain why such conduct constitutes negligence and how a victim can go about proving distracted driving at trial.
- Statute of Limitations for Defective MedicinesSometimes after a person has taken certain medications, he or she discovers that this medicine has caused unanticipated medical issues. A person may be entitled to compensation for injuries caused by defective products. However, a person only has a limited amount of time in which to bring a lawsuit in order to recover.
- Widow Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Nursing HomeA wrongful death lawsuit has been filed in Cook County by a widow who claims that negligence on the part of a nursing home caused her husband's death.
- Claims that Give Rise to Medical MalpracticeTechnology has progressed to allow all manner of surgeries that extensively prolong human life to be performed with varying types of machinery. Despite this, there are in excess of 225,000 cases of patients who die while receiving medical treatment due to malpractice.
- Time Limit to Bring a Case for Wrongful DeathA wrongful death occurs when one personís negligence or intentional acts takes away the life of another, resulting in damages to a surviving family member. A wrongful death may occur because of an automotive accident, workplace accident, homicide, medical malpractice or any other manner in which the law holds one party responsible for the death. However, the plaintiff only has a certain amount of time in which to file a claim.
- 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.