Losing a loved one is never easy. Whether it’s a sudden and unexpected death or a long and difficult battle, the pain of losing someone close to you can be overwhelming. If that loss was due to the negligence, medical malpractice, or wrongful actions of someone else, the grief can be compounded by feelings of anger, frustration, and a sense of injustice. I
n such cases, the surviving family members may have the right to seek compensation for their losses under wrongful death law. But navigating the legal process during a time of grief can be daunting, and many people are unsure where to turn for help. In this blog post, we’ll explore the basics of wrongful death law, including what it is, who can file a claim, and what damages can be recovered.
We hope that this information will help provide some clarity during a difficult time, and give you the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about your legal options. So, let’s dive in.
Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
To bring a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the following elements must be present:
- The death of a human being.
- That death 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.
- The appointment of a personal representative for the decedent’s estate.
A wrongful death lawsuit may arise out of various circumstances, such as medical malpractice, automobile or airplane accidents, occupational exposure to hazardous conditions or substances, criminal behaviour, or death during a supervised activity. It is important to note that wrongful death claims must be filed within the statute of limitations. However, claims may be filed later in some cases, according to the ‘discovery rule,’ if the cause of action wasn’t determined until later.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit can typically be filed by certain individuals who are designated as “real parties in interest.” These individuals are usually close family members or representatives of the deceased person’s estate. The specific eligibility criteria for filing a wrongful death lawsuit vary depending on the jurisdiction (state or country) where the lawsuit is being filed. However, some common categories of individuals who may have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit include:
Immediate Family Members: Spouses, children, and sometimes parents of the deceased person are often allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Domestic or Life Partners: In some jurisdictions, domestic partners or life partners who were financially dependent on the deceased person may be eligible to file a lawsuit.
Distant Family Members: Depending on the laws of the jurisdiction, other relatives such as siblings, grandparents, and even aunts or uncles might be allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit if they can demonstrate financial dependency or other relevant factors.
Legal Guardians: If the deceased person had legal dependents or wards, their legal guardians may have the right to file a lawsuit.
Personal Representatives: The executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate and its beneficiaries.
Financial Dependents: People who were financially dependent on the deceased person, even if they are not direct family members, might be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit in some jurisdictions.
Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Pecuniary, or financial, injury is the primary measure of damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. Courts interpret “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.
Determining Pecuniary Loss
When determining pecuniary loss, it’s important to consider the age, character, and condition of the decedent, their earning capacity, life expectancy, health and intelligence, as well as the circumstances of the distributees. This determination may seem straightforward, but it often becomes a complicated inquiry, keeping in mind that the measure of damages is actual pecuniary loss.
The main consideration in awarding damages is the decedent’s circumstances at the time of death. For instance, when an adult wage earner with dependents dies, the major parts of the recovery are loss of income and loss of parental guidance. The jury may consider the decedent’s earnings at the time of death, the last known earnings if unemployed, and potential future earnings.
Adjustments in the Jury’s Award
In a wrongful death lawsuit, the jury determines the size of the damages award after hearing the evidence. However, the size of the award may be adjusted upward or downward by the court for various reasons. For example, if the decedent routinely squandered their income, this might reduce the family’s recovery. Similarly, the courts will reduce a jury’s award if the decedent had poor earnings, even if they were young, had great potential, and supported several children.
At the same time, a jury may award lost earnings despite the decedent’s having been unemployed if they had worked in the past, and if the plaintiff presented evidence of the decedent’s average earnings while employed. If the plaintiff fails to present such evidence of the decedent’s average earnings, the court may set aside the jury’s damage award and order a new trial.
In the past, the testimony of economists was not admissible in cases where for example a housewife died. This was because the financial impact on the survivors would not involve a loss of income, but rather increased expenditures to continue the services the housewife was providing or would have provided if she had lived. However, this rule has now changed, and economists’ expert testimony is admissible even when the decedent is a housewife who was not employed outside the home.
Punitive damages are typically 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. However, some states have specific statutes that permit the recovery of punitive damages.
If you are unsure whether your state allows for the recovery of punitive damages, an attorney can advise you on this matter. They can also help you understand whether your case may qualify for punitive damages.
Survival Actions for Personal Injury
In addition to damages for wrongful death, the distributees may also be able to recover damages for personal injury to the decedent. These are known as “survival actions” since the personal injury action survives the person who suffered the injury. The decedent’s personal representative can bring this type of action together with the wrongful death action, for the benefit of the decedent’s estate.
Assessing Damages in Survival Actions
When assessing damages in a survival action for a decedent’s conscious pain and suffering, the jury may consider several factors. These include:
- the degree of consciousness
- the severity of pain
- and the apprehension of impending death, along with the duration of such suffering.
If you have lost a loved one due to the negligence or wrongful actions of another party, it is important to understand your legal rights. Presenting expert testimony from economists can help you establish the value of the decedent to their family and provide some measure of financial relief. In addition, survival actions may allow for damages related to the decedent’s personal injury. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the legal process and ensure that your interests are protected.