When an individual dies due to the negligence, malpractice, or inaction of another person, the family of the victim can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party. Though nothing can bring loved ones back, holding the negligent person or party accountable for their wrongful actions can provide some measure of solace.
Common Causes of Wrongful Death
Wrongful deaths can result from a range of events or accidents; the most common causes of wrongful death include auto accidents, use of defective products, medical malpractice, and construction accidents.
If a party acts negligently, recklessly, with a complete disregard for other people's safety, or with intent to harm or kill, and an individual dies as a result of these actions, the death may be deemed wrongful. In such instances, it is possible to hold the liable party accountable for his or her actions. The following are some common causes of wrongful death:
Motor Vehicle Accident Wrongful Death
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were more than 42,000 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2006. Motorists have an obligation to exercise caution while operating motor vehicles, obey the rules of the road, drive safely according to the conditions, and to be mindful of other motorists and pedestrians. If a loved one was killed in a motor vehicle accident, it may be possible to file a wrongful death claim against the at-fault party. An experienced wrongful death attorney can help ensure that your rights are protected as well as advise a course of action to obtain a successful case resolution.
Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death
If a medical practitioner fails to perform his or her duties to the accepted standard of care, and as a result, causes injury or death to a patient, then the liable party can be held accountable. Medical malpractice causes a significant number of wrongful deaths in the United States every year. According to statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 90 percent of all medical malpractice lawsuits brought forth involve a plaintiff who has claimed the defendant caused a death or permanent, debilitating injury.
Product Liability Wrongful Death
Under product liability law, manufacturers, distributors, and product designers have an obligation to ensure the products they make and sell are safe for the public. Unfortunately, product designers and distributors will occasionally neglect to rigorously test their products to see that they are acceptable for public sale. If a product suffers from a design defect, a manufacturing defect, or a marketing defect (customers are not made aware of a potentially harmful risk, for example), and a person is killed as a result, it is possible to hold the liable party accountable, regardless of whether or not the party acted negligently.
Workplace Accident Wrongful Death
Dangerous work environments can pose a serious risk to employees. Workplace accidents such as falls, explosions, burns, and equipment accidents cause numerous deaths every year in environments including construction sites, manufacturing plants, and mining operations. If an employee is killed on a work site as a result of an employer's negligence or disregard for employee safety, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed against the negligent party. Employers have a legal obligation to meet OSHA standards, provide a safe work environment, and to take reasonable measures to protect the employees under their care.
Hiring a Wrongful Death Attorney
Hiring a wrongful death attorney can help your case; wrongful death attorneys are well-versed in the law, the statutes of limitations for filing a claim, and the elements needed to prove fault in wrongful death cases.
If you have lost a loved one due to the negligent, reckless, or willful actions of another party, a wrongful death lawyer can help ensure your family is justly compensated for your loss. Even if the liable party is not charged with a crime, it may still be possible to file a civil suit to hold the liable party accountable for his or her actions. For the best chance of obtaining a fair and just case resolution, it is important to seek legal counsel from an experienced and knowledgeable wrongful death lawyer. Litigating a lawsuit successfully requires an exhaustive understanding of the law and the drive to aggressively fight for what is right.
How a Wrongful Death Lawyer Can Help
An experienced lawyer can provide sound legal counsel and aggressive representation if you are seeking to file a lawsuit, and will work tirelessly to ensure that your legal rights are protected. You may be eligible for financial compensation in the event of a loved one's death, and an attorney can help determine the most effective way to proceed with your claim. If a member of your family was killed as a result of another party's negligent or reckless actions, a wrongful death lawyer can help you obtain restitution from the defendant for medical costs, funerary costs, loss of income (including future income), pain and suffering, and the loss of a family member. In some instances – a case in which the defendant exhibited a wanton disregard for the safety of others, for example – it may also be possible to file for punitive damages to punish the defendant for his or her actions.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
While dealing with the death of a loved one is always painful, it is especially traumatic when the death was caused by another person’s actions or negligence, called a “wrongful death”. Whether your loved one died because of a work-related accident, an automobile accident, medical malpractice, or another cause, if another person or group is at fault for the death, you may be able eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In most cases, only close family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of their loved one. But no matter what, it is always a good idea to speak with a wrongful death attorney to find out if you are eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
State Law and Wrongful Death Charges
In all states, immediate family members (such as spouses and children) of the deceased can file a wrongful death lawsuit. However, state laws on who may file wrongful death charges vary, and contacting a wrongful death lawyer is the best way to make sure you have all your information. State laws vary regarding:
- Children who are minors: Some states require the appointment of a legal guardian (a guardian ad litem) to look out for minors’ interests in the lawsuit.
- Distant relatives and legal dependants: Some states allow distant family members (such as grandparents) or legal dependents to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
- Parental rights: In the event of a child’s death, some states do not permit parents to press wrongful death lawsuits if the child died in-utero.
- The defendant: If the person who caused the death is a member of the deceased’s family, while subject to criminal penalties, he or she cannot be sued by another family member. State law determines whether a non-blood relative may be sued.
- The statute of limitations: Survivors have a limited amount of time (a statute of limitations) after a wrongful death to file charges. Survivors cannot bring charges once the time limit has passed.
Wrongful Death Statutes of Limitations
The statutes of limitations in wrongful death cases varies by state and circumstance; while the statutes of limitations is two years in most cases, it is always a good idea to consult an attorney to ensure you file your suit on time.
Wrongful death lawsuits, like most other civil cases, must be filed in court within a prescribed period of time. Courts impose deadlines called statutes of limitations on lawsuits because as time passes, critical evidence may be destroyed or misplaced and witnesses may be unavailable or have forgotten what they saw. Wrongful death cases that are not filed before their deadline has passed will be barred from ever getting into court, so it is crucial that parties who are considering filing such a legal claim consult with a qualified wrongful death attorney as soon as possible.
Different States, Different Deadlines
There is no set time period for statutes of limitations. The length of time a party has to file a lawsuit depends on the state where the claim is to be filed and the grounds for the suit. Wrongful death claims may have shorter or longer deadlines than claims for medical negligence or other personal injuries, for example.
Some states impose a one-year statute of limitations on wrongful death cases, while others allow claims to be filed for two or more years after the death in question. In some cases, a wrongful death case may be filed long after a person has died if the cause of death was not determined until later. In such cases, the clock starts running on the statute of limitations when the cause of death is discovered.
Because the laws of every state are different, it is critically important that you consult with a knowledgeable and experienced wrongful death attorney in the state where your lawsuit will be filed as soon as possible after the death has occurred. If you allow your filing deadline to pass, regardless of whose fault it is, you will be permanently barred from ever getting into court to fight for financial damages for your medical bills, pain and suffering, and other damages.
Proving Fault a Wrongful Death Claim
In order to obtain compensation, the families of wrongful death victims must prove that the fatality was the result of another person or party's negligence or malpractice. If the person filing the claim can show proof of fault, compensation will not be awarded.
Successful parties must prove that the responsible party had a duty to act in a certain way, failed to act according to that duty, and in doing so, injured another party, causing damages. The best way to determine whether you have a legitimate wrongful death claim is to contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible to evaluate your claim and discuss your legal rights.
Evidence in Wrongful Death Claims
In most wrongful death cases, evidence comes from witnesses who can testify to exactly what they saw or heard relating to the death. Also, documents such as medical reports, declarations from witnesses, and police reports may be valuable evidence. Expert testimony may be offered to prove complicated issues such as product liability, vehicle safety, and workplace safety. The plaintiff, who in most wrongful death cases is a surviving relative of the deceased party, must present sufficient evidence in court to convince a judge or jury to rule in their favor, while a defendant can present their own evidence in response to the plaintiff’s allegations. A judge or jury will hear the evidence and issue a verdict in the case.
Preponderance of the Evidence
In wrongful death lawsuits and most civil cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff’s injury by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence simply means it is more likely than not that the defendant’s actions were responsible for the victim’s injuries. The civil preponderance of the evidence burden proof has been described as being proof of liability by a margin of at least 51 percent to 49 percent. It should be noted that civil courts have a lower burden of proof than criminal courts, where most evidence and guilt must proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Judge or Jury Trial
While many civil lawsuits are settled in pre-trial negotiations, some cases cannot be resolved between the parties and must go to a judge or jury for a trial. In most states, a civil jury does not have to reach a unanimous verdict as is required in criminal trials; only a simple majority of jurors is required to prevail in many civil courts.
Wrongful Death Damages
Families who file a successful wrongful death lawsuit can be awarded thousands, even millions, of dollars in damages. Damages in wrongful death cases can be awarded for the deceased's medical bills, loss of wages, funeral and burial expenses.
When a person is killed as a result of the negligent, reckless or unlawful actions of another person or entity, the victim’s surviving relatives can file a wrongful death civil lawsuit seeking financial damages from responsible party. Wrongful death damages may seek to compensate the family for medical bills, lost wages and loss of companionship (compensatory damages) or awarded in an effort to punish the offending party for their negligent or intentional acts (punitive damages).
Compensatory damages are money awarded by a judge or jury and intended to repay a victim’s family for the costs of medical care, funeral and burial and other expenses they had to incur as the direct result of the wrongful death. Most often, families of deceased parties prove their compensatory damages in court by submitted receipts for the services and products they paid for.
Compensatory damages may also be awarded to compensate a deceased party’s relatives for work income the victim would have earned if they had lived. Lost income can be projected out for decades depending on the age of the victim at the time of their death. Courts have also awarded compensatory damages for the worth of an individual's housekeeping and for child-care services. Also, a damages award might be justified on the basis of grief and loss of companionship.
When a party’s intentional, reckless or grossly negligent acts result in the death of another party, a jury or judge may impose punitive damages that are meant to punish the offending party and discourage similar acts in the future. Punitive damages are imposed in addition to compensatory damages, which are intended to repay the victim’s family for medical bills, burial costs and other out-of-pocket expenses.
For the most part, juries are free to impose whatever amount of punitive damages they feel are appropriate and may base their decision on the net worth of the defendant, among other factors. However, judges have the power to review the jury award and may find it is excessive, reduce the amount of the award or set it aside altogether.
Limits on Damages
Some states place limits on the amount of money in compensatory or punitive damages a jury can award to a victim’s family in a wrongful death action. International treaties limit the amount that can be recovered by relatives of people killed on airlines traveling between nations and an employee’s right to receive damages for workplace injuries may be limited by the employer’s workers' compensation insurance. In such cases, while the amount the worker can receive may be limited, receiving some compensation for work-related injuries is guaranteed.
Well Known Wrongful Death Settlements and Verdicts
There are a number of well-known wrongful death settlements and verdicts that have awarded in recent years, including the civil suit filed against O.J. Simpson. Read about cases that ended in favorable wrongful death settlements and verdicts.
Wrongful Death Statistics
Unfortunately, thousands of wrongful deaths occur every year, and many result in lawsuits. Find more U.S. wrongful death statistics and consult an attorney if you think you have a case.
Consult a Wrongful Death Attorney
If you suspect that you have a valid wrongful death claim, it is important that you speak to a qualified wrongful death attorney for a case review. Use ImpactLaw's online directory of wrongful death lawyers to find an attorney in your state.