What Happens in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?


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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.

About Wrongful Death Claims

Wrongful death claims are a type of personal injury claim in which the loved ones of the decedent seek monetary compensation related to the economic and non-economic consequences of the decedentís death. The law does not allow the defendant who is responsible for the accident to escape civil liability simply because the victim is deceased. While the laws surrounding wrongful death take into account that money cannot possibly replace the loss of life that a wrongful death causes, this is typically the only type of remedy that is available when a personís death is caused by accidental factors. Therefore, the family members of deceased victims may be able to pursue monetary damages.

Elements of a Wrongful Death

In order for a person to recover with any civil claim, he or she must establish the essential elements of the claim. These elements are established by state law. In most states, the elements of a wrongful death claim include:

A Death

The first element that must usually be established is that a person died. If a person was injured in an accident but is still physically alive, a wrongful death claim will not stand.

The Defendantís Negligence Caused the Death

The next element that must be proven is that the defendantís negligence caused the death. This means that the defendant owed the decedent a standard of care and breached this standard of care. For example, if the death was a result of a car accident, the defendant may have failed to use the ordinary care, skill and caution that a reasonably prudent person would have demonstrated. Negligence may be something that someone did, such as a doctor making a mistake during surgery or failing to do something, such as failing to stop at a red light.

The Plaintiff Suffered by the Death

The plaintiff must have been affected by the death. This is usually determined by viewing whether the plaintiff was dependent upon the financial support of the decedent.

The Plaintiff Has a Legal Right to Recover

Each state has a wrongful death statute that specifies the surviving family members who have the legal right to recover.

Damages

One of the most complex aspects of a wrongful death case is how to determine the amount of damages. Courts can consider a number of factors when determining the amount of damages that can be awarded. This includes the decedent's past income history as well as the potential for raises and future income that the decedent likely would have received had the wrongful death not occurred. The court may also attempt to determine the life expectancy and health of the decedent to determine how many years of income the defendant took away to properly evaluate damages. Additionally, the court will determine the decedentís non-monetary contributions to the household and the replacement value of such services, such as caregiving and housekeeping.

When determining damages, the court may also grant the plaintiff compensatory damages to provide compensation for medical bills, funeral expenses, loss of future inheritance, loss of future income, loss of companionship and pain and suffering. If the defendantís actions were intentional or particularly egregious, the court may also provide punitive damages to the plaintiff which are damages intended to punish the defendant and deter similar conduct in the future.

Statute of Limitations

There is often a very limited time in which to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This is commonly two years or less, depending on state law. This is referred to as the statute of limitations. If a plaintiff fails to bring a lawsuit before this statute of limitations expires, he or she may forfeit the right to recover damages unless there is a rare exception.

Legal Assistance

Individuals who would like more information about filing a wrongful death claim may wish to consult with a lawyer who can explain their rights and whether they are one of the specific family members who have a right to pursue a claim of this nature.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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