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.

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Articles About Wrongful Death

  • An Overview of Wrongful Death Claims
    A wrongful death case can occur when a person is fatally injured as a result of another person or companyís negligence. Accidents such as medical malpractice or a car crash can constitute as a wrongful death claim. Our Middletown wrongful death lawyers answer some questions about these cases below.
  • What to Do When Youíve Been Injured in a Hit and Run Accident
    How do you prove liability in a hit-and-run? Being injured in a hit-and-run accident is terrible because you do not know who was responsible and how to contact whoever caused your injuries. There are, however, definite steps that can be taken to ensure you get appropriate compensation for your injuries.
  • Why You Should Hire a Personal Injury Lawyer
    In almost all accident cases, it is important that measures be taken to preserve evidence, investigate the accident and enable doctors and other witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries. If you or a loved one is a victim of an automobile accident involving a drunk driver, hire a personal injury attorney and let them handle your case.
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    When one personís negligence results in the death of another, a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed. Individuals contemplating such a lawsuit may have a number of questions regarding wrongful death lawsuits, including:
  • Can an Unmarried Partner Sue for Wrongful Death?
    Wrongful death situations transpire in accidents, at work and between persons where the deceased experienced some circumstances where he or she expired due to actions of the other party.
  • What Driverless Cars Mean for Michigan Auto Lawyers
    Driverless cars are coming to Michigan roads, and around the world, sooner than many of us might expect. Auto lawyers and insurance companies are already bracing for impact, trying to prepare for when the first autonomous vehicles crash into our lives, and our practices. Exactly how driverless cars will affect the future of no-fault auto accident litigation remains to be seen, but there will be changes. That much is certain.
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    Car manufacturers continue to develop ways to ensure that both car drivers and passengers remain safe in the case of an accident. One of the latest innovations in vehicle technology is the creation of a self-driving car. With a computer manning the wheel, the possibility of human error contributing to a crash is greatly diminished. But accidents still do happen.
  • Legal Help to Pursue Compensation for a Wrongful Death
    It is when someone loved has died through the tragic circumstances that involve an individual or an entity that a wrongful death suit may be considered. While these situations are usually filled with sadness, despair and grief, the surviving family members are able to in certain instances and states file a suit of wrongful death against the party that caused the incident.
  • What Makes It Wrongful Death?
    Wrongful death incidents occur when someone has caused the death of another person through his or her behavior or actions. These situations often leave surviving family members or dependents behind that are affected by these circumstances without the deceasedís monetary assistance.
  • How a Lawyer Can Help Determine Liable Parties in a Fatal Accidental Shooting?
    Non-fatal shootings have become an issue in the country at over 70,000 persons affected each year with hospital visits as stated by the National Center for Injury Protection and Control. Additionally, just under half of this amount is fatally wounded in various instances of a gunshot wound.
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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.

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