If a person dies because of negligence, that person’s survivors and loved ones might have the option of filing a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of suit can seek compensation for lost wages as well as companionship and funeral expenses.
Defining Wrongful Death
Wrongful death refers to mortality through legal fault of someone else. The accused party may be a person, company, government agency or organization. Any type of fatal accident has the potential to result in a wrongful death claim, from auto accidents to product liability cases to complex medical malpractice issues. A suit can be filed if another person or entity is thought to be legally liable for negligence, which means a failure to act reasonably or being intentionally reckless.
Who Can Be Sued?
A wrongful death lawsuit may be brought against individuals, businesses, governmental agencies or specific employees. An auto accident could have a range of possible defendants, including:
- The driver who caused the accident
- The employer of the driver (if applicable)
- The vehicle manufacturer
- The manufacturer of one or more of the components of the vehicle
- The builder or designer of the roadway
- A government agent if adequate warnings about a road hazard were not provided
- Those who provided alcohol to the driver (if applicable)
Immunity for Government Agencies and Employees
There are some governmental agencies and their agents that could be immune from being sued or charged for a wrongful death. However, this varies from one state to the next. There are also some federal laws on the books providing immunity to certain medical product liability cases related to generic versions of drugs as well as accidents related to railroads.
Who is Eligible to Bring Suit?
Wrongful death lawsuits may only be brought by a representative of survivors who can prove that they are suffering damages as a direct result of the deceased passing away. This representative is often also the decedent’s estate executor. The survivors (also referred to as “real parties in interest”) may include:
- Spouse or domestic partner
- Children (including adopted children)
- Parents of a deceased fetus (if an unborn child dies as a result of negligence)
- Financial dependents
- Parents of unmarried persons
- Distant family members (in some states) such as siblings or grandparents
- Those who suffer financially as a result of the death
Available financial damages in a wrongful death lawsuit vary a great across different states. There is often a cap, especially in medical malpractice claims.
There are three basic types of damages for a wrongful death lawsuit; they can be economic (financial), non-financial, and punitive.
This type of damage relates to the value of the financial contributions the deceased person would have earned for the survivors, including:
- Loss of the deceased’s earnings
- Loss of benefits like medical coverage or income from a pension plan
- Loss of inheritance
- Value of goods and services the deceased would have provided
- Funeral expenses and medical bills connected with the death
Non-economic damages are often more valuable than financial. They include:
- Pain and Suffering
- Mental anguish
- Loss of care
- Loss of protection
- Loss of companionship
- Loss of guidance, nurturing, advice and training
- Loss of love
- Loss of consortium
This type of damage is awarded as punishment for extremely bad conduct. While not available in many states and not recoverable against some types of defendants such as most government agencies, something called “treble damages” may be recovered in some cases. This refers to an amount that is three times actual damages. Treble damages are often recoverable against nursing homes if elder abuse has resulted in the death of a senior loved one.
Attorneys’ Fees and Interest
In some states, survivors can be reimbursed for lawyers’ costs from the defendant related to the lawsuit. Interest on the damages awarded between the time of the wrongful death to the time collected may also be sought.
Expert witnesses such as actuaries and economists may be called to help determine appropriate damage amounts.
Each state has a “statute of limitations” for bringing a wrongful death claim, which is generally one to two years. In some cases, “date of discovery” is the starting date even if this is after the date of the wrongful death. However, most states have a limit on date of discovery as well.
Wrongful death cases can be highly complex, but they can also result in substantial financial payouts. It’s always advisable to consult an attorney to find out your options.