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.

Copyright HG.org

Know Your Rights!

Articles About Wrongful Death

  • Michigan Birth Injury Litigation 101
    You spent nine months dreaming about what your baby would look like. You eagerly anticipated holding him for the first time. Hearing that first cry. Instead, there was panic. Labor took too long. You listened to the fetal heart rate monitor anxiously awaiting the next bleep that let you know your baby's heart was still beating.
  • Florida Nursing Home Deaths after Hurricane Irma under Investigation
    Investigations are underway as to why eight residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Florida died in the days after Hurricane Irma swept through the state.
  • How to File an Asbestos Compensation Claim on Behalf of Someone Else
    An asbestos disease diagnosis is a devastating verdict. Victims and their families must be aware that these conditions, though irreversible, can be held under control if they are discovered at an early stage. However, the necessary treatments and proper care imply constant check-up and considerable amounts of money. G
  • Lack of Regulation Regarding Ambulance Accidents in Texas Adds Insult to Injury
    In Texas, there are no laws requiring that private ambulance services carry anything more than a minimum limits policy. This is just one of many hurdles that make obtaining a fair recovery for a person injured by a negligent ambulance driver from obtaining a fair recovery.
  • How to Choose a Wrongful Death Attorney
    Losing a loved one is an unimaginable tragedy. Losing someone due to the possible negligence of another can make the pain even harder. Find out what to look for in a wrongful death attorney.
  • Who Is Liable if You Loan Your Vehicle and There Is an Accident?
    Most people have loaned their vehicle to a friend or relative at one point or another. Itís a generous thing to do for someone close to you who you trust, and itís certainly a common practice. But as you hand the keys over, you may have a flash of worry: What if they get in an accident? What if my car gets totaled, or what if they get hurt?
  • Who Is to Blame When a Product Malfunctions?
    Each and every day, you use hundreds of products. From the time you get up in the morning to the moment you fall asleep at night (and even while youíre sleeping), youíre using products that other people designed, manufactured, and sold to you.
  • Does the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act Really Help Asbestos Victims?
    Asbestos is still present in our lives, although itís been more than 40 years since this deadly mineralís use started to be limited. Thousands of mesothelioma victims die each year because of this severe illness that is caused solely by asbestos while companies continue to import this substance into the US and use it across different industries.
  • Texting and Driving: Illegal and Dangerous
    As a personal injury lawyer, Iíve seen many accidents caused by distracted driving, and one of the most common causes is texting. While having constant communication with work and family may seem like a good thing, doing it on the road can be a surefire way to suffer life-threatening injuries in many cases.
  • Ten of the most dangerous jobs for Workers Compensation
    Are you one of the many Americans working at high risk job on a daily basis for the sake of a paycheck? For a lot of you, avoiding imminent danger is just part of the job. Some of the most fundamentally important careers to our society are among the most dangerous.
  • 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.

Publications Related to Wrongful Death Law




Find a Lawyer

Find a Local Lawyer