Do You Have a Wrongful Death Case?

When a person dies or is killed due to the negligence or misconduct of another, including murder, the surviving members of the victim’s family may sue for “wrongful death.” Most wrongful death lawsuits follow in the wake of criminal trials, using similar evidence but with a lower standard of proof. Regardless, someone found liable for wrongful death may or may not be convicted of a crime associated with that death.

A lawsuit for wrongful death may only be brought by the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. Every state has a civil “wrongful death statute,” or set of statutes, which establish the procedures for bringing wrongful death actions. Actions for personal injury, conscious pain and suffering, or expenses incurred prior to the decedent’s death are also brought by the personal representative. The damage awards from these actions belong to the estate and may pass to different parties as directed by the decedent’s will.

Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

In order to bring a successful wrongful death cause of action, the following elements must be present:

  • The death of a human being;
  • Caused by another’s negligence, or with intent to cause harm;
  • The survival of family members who are suffering monetary injury as a result of the death, and;
  • The appointment of a personal representative for the decedent’s estate.

A wrongful death claim may arise out of a number of circumstances, such as in the following situations:

  • Medical malpractice that results in decedent’s death;
  • Automobile or airplane accident;
  • Occupational exposure to hazardous conditions or substances;
  • Criminal behavior;
  • Death during a supervised activity.

Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Pecuniary, or financial injury is the main measure of damages in a wrongful death action. Courts have interpreted “pecuniary injuries” as including the loss of support, services, lost prospect of inheritance, and medical and funeral expenses. Most laws provide that the damages awarded for a wrongful death shall be fair and just compensation for the pecuniary injuries that resulted from the decedent’s death. If the distributees paid or are responsible for the decedent’s funeral or medical care, they may also recover those expenses. Finally, a damage award will include interest from the date of the decedent’s death.
Punitive damages are awarded in cases of serious or malicious wrongdoing to punish the wrongdoer, or deter others from behaving similarly. In most states, a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages in a wrongful death action. There are some states, however, that have specific statutes that permit the recovery of punitive damages. In states that do not explicitly allow or disallow punitive damages in wrongful death actions, courts have held punitive damages permissible. An attorney will be able to advise you as to whether your state allows punitive damages.

Survival Actions for Personal Injury

In addition to damages for wrongful death, the distributees may be able to recover damages for personal injury to the decedent. These are called “survival actions,” since the personal injury action survives the person who suffered the injury. The decedent’s personal representative can bring such an action together with the wrongful death action, for the benefit of the decedent’s estate.

In a survival action for a decedent’s conscious pain and suffering, the jury may make several inquiries to determine the amount of damages, including: 1) the degree of consciousness; 2) severity of pain; and, 3) apprehension of impending death, along with the duration of such suffering.

Getting Help

If a loved one has died after an accident or injury caused by the negligence or misconduct of another individual, company or entity, you may be entitled to bring a legal action for wrongful death against those responsible. Let the experienced, caring attorneys at Kelly Law explain your rights in a private setting and help evaluate your next course of action.