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
- Texas Wrongful Death Lawsuits DecodedIf one of your family members has died in an accident, you may be able to recover damages on a wrongful death claim. However, there are specific elements that must be proven in order to prevail on a wrongful death claim, and deadlines that must be met. Additionally, only certain "loved ones" will legally qualify as a proper plaintiff in a wrongful death matter.
- Death by AutoDrivers who are accused of causing fatal accidents by driving recklessly will in most circumstances be prosecuted for violating New Jerseyís vehicular homicide statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5. The majority of drivers prosecuted for vehicular homicide are accused of impaired driving resulting from high blood alcohol concentrations or the ingestion of drugs. In other cases, sleep deprivation may give rise to the accusation of reckless driving.
- Wrongful Death ElementsA wrongful death case may be filed by the surviving family members of someone who died as a result of the negligence, recklessness or intentional acts of another person. In order for the family to recover, they must be able to show that all of the elements of the case are present.
- Wrongful Death CasesWhen one partyís negligent or intentional actions cause the death of another person, this party may be held civilly liable for the death. This may result in the victimís family receiving compensation for the economic and non-economic damages that they and the victim suffered.
- Drug and Alcohol Risks for Underage YouthsAdolescents commonly experience with drugs and alcohol during their youth. However, this can often result in serious ramifications to their development, future prospects and potential criminal culpability. Understanding these risks can help recognize and deter this conduct.
- Amtrak Sued Following Fatal AccidentAn April 3, 2016 collision on the southbound tracks just outside Chester, Pennsylvania fatally injured two railroad workers. The family of one of those men recently responded by filing a negligence action against Amtrak. According to the complaint filed on behalf of the workerís two grown children, Amtrak failed to take reasonable steps to avoid the tragedy.
- Death on the JobThe American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) compiled a report on worker safety, losses and deaths recently. Not only did the report tackle issues of gender, race, job industry and more, but it also exposed the most dangerous states in respect to worker fatalities and injuries.
- Children Hurt in Personal Injury CasesPersonal injury cases arise when a partyís negligence is responsible for anotherís injury. Personal injury cases can be more complicated when children are the victims.
- What Happens in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?When an individual is involved in an accident that is caused by another partyís negligence, the injured victim usually has the right to pursue a personal injury claim to recover compensation for the damages that he or she sustains. However, when the victim dies as a result of such negligence, a wrongful death claim may arise.
- 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.
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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.