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.
Wrongful Death Law Articles
- Understanding the PFAS Water Provider Settlement: A Comprehensive OverviewOn June 22nd, 2023, a defining event in environmental litigation transpired when 3M Co. agreed to a substantial settlement, amounting to an initial $10.3 billion due to allegations related to PFAS contamination. With the potential for this settlement to edge closer to $12.5 billion, it's crucial for water providers and municipalities to be well-versed with the details and implications.
- Attorney Northwest Georgia Walt Moffitt discusses Car Accident Injury Claims in GeorgiaIf you were hurt in a car accident that was not your fault, and are dealing with medical bills, car repairs, lost wages, and other costs, you would benefit from have a personal injury attorney on your side. Roughly 3000 accidents occur yearly in Whitfield County, Georgia, so many other local citizens are also fighting the same types of battles. Georgia law, though, does provide compensation against the at-fault driver or drivers. This article is about personal injury law in Georgia in the northwest corner of the Peach State. It explains how to handle your insurance company and have a skilled lawyer communicate with the negligent party’s insurer.
- Drunk Driving and Its Fatal DangersDrunk driving continues to be a terrible problem on California roads. Although the penalties for drunk driving are tough enough to discourage many people from driving after drinking, not everyone worries about the consequences. However, the financial and possibly criminal penalties for drunk driving may come down on such drivers.
- Cerebral Palsy Lawsuits in MichiganAll parents worry about their child’s future. But when a baby or child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, there is a whole new level of worry. Will the child be able to work and live independently? Will they need life-long medical care? Who will take care of the child if he or she outlives the parents? How will the child’s medical expenses be paid? A cerebral palsy birth trauma lawsuit, which is a subcategory of Medical Malpractice in Michigan, can help families recover sufficient money so that families do not need to worry about how to pay for care and can focus on caring for their child.
- What Constitutes Medical Malpractice in Florida?Malpractice does not mean having pain or a negative outcome following a procedure which was performed appropriately in accordance with all normal industry standards.
- Negligent Security vs Premises LiabilityEach day in Baltimore City, you can read or see news stories about how someone sustained injuries or was killed while at a commercial establishment. Gas stations, bars or clubs, business parking lots, and convenience stores are all common spaces for criminal activity, and your chances of being the victim of a crime at one of these locations are high. Victims rely on the criminal justice system to hold the perpetrators accountable, but what about the business? Is it possible to hold them responsible for your injuries or the death of a loved one in an encounter on the property? Knowing whether your case falls under negligent security vs premise liability will help you understand if you’re entitled to compensation. In this article, we explain the differences and what they mean for you below.
- Determining Fault After a Semi Truck AccidentThe trucking industry is a crucial part of our society. Every day, thousands of trucks on the roads transport goods across the country. However, as integral as the commercial trucking industry is to the economy, these large trucks can also cause significant damage and devastating injuries when accidents occur. In 2020, over 100,000 large trucks were involved in accidents that resulted in injury, and 5,000 of those accidents resulted in fatalities.
- Wrongful Death Claims for Fatal Auto Accidents in IndianaCar accidents that end in death are tragic. When someone loses their life, it’s not only a tragic and unfair end for them, but it can cause immense pain and suffering for the loved ones left behind. Though no amount of money can ever replace someone you have lost, a wrongful death car accident settlement can make the process of moving on a little easier, at least financially. Wrongful death car accident settlements can compensate surviving family members for such things as medical bills, loss of financial resources, and funeral, burial, or cremation expenses. It can even provide compensation for pain & suffering and loss of companionship.
- Can I File a Birth Injury Malpractice Claim in Maryland for Shoulder Dystocia?From the moment the pregnancy is confirmed to the much-anticipated labor and delivery, parents’ main concern is that the baby is born healthy, and with no major complications. However, there are a range of things that can go wrong during the childbirth process that can cause serious, permanent injuries to the baby and the mother. Shoulder dystocia is one example of a birth injury that can occur without any warning. In extreme cases, the consequences can be fatal. If you or your baby suffered severe injuries resulting from shoulder dystocia, and you believe that negligence was involved, contact a medical malpractice lawyer.
- The Path to Obtaining Financial Compensation in the Aftermath of a Maryland Automobile Accident: Phase IIIIn articles I and II in this series, I’ve explored what should happen in the immediate wake of an accident or personal injury-causing event. This culminating entry details the final phase when a personal injury “claim” evolves into a personal injury case [i.e. a lawsuit].
- All Tort and Personal Injury Law Articles