Wrongful Death Law

What is Wrongful Death Law?

Wrongful death law applies in tort cases in which the defendant's conduct has resulted in the death of the victim, leaving behind surviving family members and dependents who will suffer as a result of the victim's 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 victim's 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 defendant's 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 victim's 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 defendant's 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 victim's 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 "more likely than not." 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 victim's 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 defendant's activities, and use the information to bolster their case. This is primarily accomplished through the "discovery" 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 victim's 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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