Damages in a Wrongful Death Suit

If the plaintiff(s) is successful in proving the defendant's liability for wrongful death, or if the case is settled prior to going to trial, the plaintiffs will be awarded for wrongful death punitive damages. As the person who has died is incapable of claiming damages on their own behalf, it falls to a beneficiary of the estate to do so. This was not an entitlement at common law, and statutory provisions had to be introduced to enable this type of claim to be made. The amount of the award and the method by which it is calculated is dependent on a number of variables and the actual determination can be very complex, requiring the input of financial experts.

What If A Beneficiary Caused The Death?

In some states, if one of the beneficiaries in the wrongful death suit is found to have contributed to the fault of the decedent's death, the other beneficiaries are prevented from suing for wrongful death. In other states, a beneficiary who is partially to blame for the death will be subjected to a reduction in damages, by an amount that corresponds to the degree of fault. This does not, however, preclude the other beneficiaries from their own entitlement and they may recover full damages.

Wrongful death statutes, although founded on the same basic principles, vary in their application and some include an imposition of a limit on the financial award to the plaintiff in one case. However in New York, for example, there are no such caps on damages – although the percentile amount of the award which is payable to the attorney may be limited.

Types Of Damages

Broadly there are two types of damages: those awarded for economic loss, and those for non-economic loss. Economic loss includes the loss of earnings, expenses incurred for medical costs, funeral costs and the future earnings of the decedent. In other words this is the financial contribution the person would have made to the family or the household if they hadn't been killed, and until the time the decedent would have retired or died naturally. If the decedent is an elderly person, they will have very low future earnings. There may also be claims for the loss of future inheritance. Non-economic loss can be monetary damages awarded for pain and suffering of the decedent, the anguish and heartache and the loss of companionship, guidance and emotional support felt by those left behind. A loss of services may be recoverable where the decedent was a homemaker, cared for a family member or provided maintenance and other non-economic support within the family home.

Some wrongful death statutes can be controversial. In Washington, the non-economic damages awarded for the death of a small child will often be greater than that awarded for the death of an eighteen year old. The reasoning behind this kind of inequality is that in the first instance the parents are entitled to claim for the loss of the parent-child relationship – but this only applies in the case of a ‘minor' child. In both cases, it is difficult to speculate as to the future earnings of the child.

Punitive Damages

Twenty seven states allow punitive damages, which is a special type of damages awarded in cases in which the defendant intended to cause the death maliciously. The amount of punitive damages depends on the wickedness or unacceptability of the defendant's behavior as well as the defendant's wealth: the more money the defendant has - whether a corporation, individual or other entity – the higher the punitive damages that are intended to punish that defendant. Because punitive damages are only possible in a limited number of states, it is vital that anyone who has lost a loved one seeks the opinion of a specialist attorney without delay.

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