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
- Why People File Wrongful Death ClaimsWhen an accident claims the life of loved one, families may experience extreme emotional suffering, along with financial hardship. While nothing can replace the love and companionship of a family member, wrongful death claims may bring families a degree of relief.
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- Wrongful Death at Sea: Liability, Non-Pecuniary Damages, and Survivorsí Legal RemediesMaritime law, already one of the most complex areas of American law, presents particular challenges in the context of a wrongful death at sea.
- Overview of New York Wrongful Death LawIf you have lost a loved one due to anotherís negligent or reckless behavior, it is important to understand New Yorkís wrongful death law. These types of matters are handled outside of the criminal justice system, even if the defendantís conduct involved some type of criminal action.
- Accounting Expert Witness Provides Evaluation on Lost Services of Family Member in Wrongful Death CasesThe wrongful death of a family member usually leads to lost services to a company and the surviving spouse and children of the individual. The economic and financial losses felt from the death are often complex with the need for an accounting expert witness to evaluate these situations to the fullest and provide a basis of the lost services.
- Tractor Trailer Accident CasesWith Interstate 85 running through, tractor trailer accidents occur often in South Carolina. This article considers some of the reasons for these accidents and what is being done to prevent them.
- How Do I Know if I Need a Lawyer?There are times in your life when you may be faced with legal issues. If you are injured due to no fault of your own, you may need legal representation to help you navigate the system. This article lists some of these situations that may require you to hire help.
- Reimbursement Obligations for Injured or Deceased Individuals in IllinoisIf an injured or deceased minor or adult owes a reimbursement obligation, certain amounts of income or funds are necessary to supply to insurance carriers, Medicaid or Medicare. In Illinois, these amounts may vary based on certain factors and which person is involved such as the parent of the affected or the child that was harmed or killed in an incident.
- Alternative Medicine Can KillAlternative medicine can be deadly for cancer patients who choose these treatments over more traditional cancer therapies and remedies. People with cancer who replace mainstream medical treatments with alternative medicine may be putting themselves at serious risk by giving up treatments that are proven methods to fight cancer.
- 80,000 Pounds of Reasons Not To Weaken Truck Safety RegulationsWeakening of safety regulations means there will likely be more drowsy truck drivers and more deadly truck crashes
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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.