What is Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death is a civil action brought by a personal representative of a decedent's estate. The action is brought against a defendant who was fully or partially responsible for the death. The defendant (or defendants) may be a person, a corporation or other entity. What needs to be proven is that the defendant was negligent, intended to cause harm or was ‘strictly liable' for the person's death. Being ‘strictly liable' means that a defendant is to blame, regardless of whether or not there was any ‘fault' attached to their act, or failure to act. So to what extent must it be proven? To be successful the plaintiff's case must be more probable than that of the defendant, otherwise known as there being a ‘preponderance of the evidence'.

In criminal litigation, a person found guilty of causing another's death may be penalised with incarceration. However, if a judgment in a wrongful death suit favors the plaintiff the defendant will be made to pay monetary damages for causing the death. Examples of types of wrongful death are: an airplane crash, murder, medical malpractice, accident at work, a car accident or a non-suicide death in prison.

State Variations

Each state has its own law relating to wrongful death, which is called a ‘wrongful death statute' but they broadly follow the same principles. There is a limit of time within which you can bring wrongful death suits, which vary depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances of the particular case. There may also be state-specific regulations relating to types of accidents.

For example, there are claims in wrongful death suits for ‘economic loss' as well as ‘non-economic loss.' Economic loss includes loss of wages of the decedent, funeral expenses and the value of lost household services. Non-economic damages include the loss of love, companionship, mentoring and guidance, or compensation for physical pain and suffering if there was a period between the injury and the subsequent death. The reasoning behind this is that when the defendant caused, in whole or in part, the death of the decedent – they did not just injure the person who died, but also hurt those to whom he was closest.

Who can bring an action for wrongful death?

The person, or people, to bring a wrongful death must be personal representatives of the estate, otherwise known as ‘distributees.' In some states this is limited to a spouse or children of the decedent, others include a parent or beneficiary of the decedent, and in some states stepparents, grandparents and dependents may also bring a claim. However, minors may need the assistance of an adult guardian to bring a claim to court. If the lawsuit is brought successfully against the plaintiff, or if a case is settled before it gets to court, the settlement may be shared amongst the relatives.

The question of working out how much the settlement award must be is a difficult one and often requires the assistance of expert economists. Not all wrongful death suits end up in court. If the lawsuit is settled prior to going to court, the award does not have to be publicized. Awards can vary dramatically and depend on the circumstances of the particular case. Consult a specialist wrongful death lawyer for advice.

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