A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil claim against a person for causing someone’s death due to negligence, recklessness or violence.
Wrongful death lawsuits allow families to recover damages incurred by the loss of their loved one.
How is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Defined?
A wrongful death lawsuit is civil in nature, which means the victim’s survivors are able to request compensation to cover the costs of damages stemming from their loved one’s death.
Are Wrongful Death Lawsuits Civil or Criminal?
Wrongful death lawsuits are civil instead of criminal, which means they cannot be used to criminally prosecute the person liable for the victim’s death. However, a separate criminal action can be taken against them based on the circumstances that led to the death.
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Who Is Able to Sue for Wrongful Death?
Depending on the state, the decedent’s surviving family members such as their spouse, children or parents can sue for wrongful death. Some states require the victim’s personal representative of their estate to file the lawsuit on the family’s behalf.
How Can You Prove Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death can be proven based on the presence of certain elements: A person has died, the death occurred because of negligence, recklessness or intentional violence, the person’s family has suffered financial damages as a result of their loss and in some cases, there is an appointed personal representative to the victim’s estate.
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Understanding Wrongful Death Statutes
The wrongful death statute allows not only the decedent’s surviving family members to file a lawsuit; in some states and in some situations, the personal representative or executor is also permitted to file a wrongful death claim. Wrongful death happens when a person is killed as a direct result of another person’s negligence, recklessness or intentional actions. An entity can also be liable for a person’s wrongful death.
What Kind of Damages Can Be Recovered in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
If a wrongful death lawsuit succeeds, different types of damages are recoverable. They include economic and noneconomic damages and in some cases, punitive damages. Economic damages are those that include specific monetary costs while noneconomic damages cannot be measured in that way. Meanwhile, punitive damages are sometimes awarded not to compensate the victim’s surviving family members but to punish the defendant for the outrageous actions and behavior exhibited at the time of the incident.
What Are the Burden of Proof and Standard of Proof in Wrongful Death?
The burden and standard of proof in wrongful death cases are lower than that of a criminal case. However, the plaintiff must prove that certain elements apply to the case in order to get a successful outcome. Those elements include a duty of care, breach of duty of care and causation. The defendant owed a duty of care to the victim at the time the incident occurred. However, that duty of care was breached in the situation with the victim, which then led to the causation factor. The breach of that duty of care directly caused the victim’s death or injuries that ultimately led to their demise.
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What Are the Causes for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim?
As a general rule, the causes for filing a wrongful death lawsuit are that a person has died because of someone else’s negligence, recklessness or intentional actions. However, the most common causes of wrongful death claims stem from car accidents caused by distracted driving, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and aggressive driving. Also, pedestrian accidents that result in death are also a major cause of wrongful death claims being filed.
Cases Involving Negligence Resulting in Accidental or Intentional Death
Negligence is one of the main factors in wrongful death claims. There are many ways negligence can occur: distracted driving, speeding, reckless driving, driving under the influence and even fatigued driving. Negligence can also cause wrongful death in other situations, including slip-and-fall accidents, medical malpractice and defective product use.
Intentional acts of recklessness and criminal violence are other bases for filing a wrongful death lawsuit. Reckless driving, road rage and various crimes can kill a person, leaving their loved ones having to deal with tragic loss and financial damages.
When Is Medical Malpractice Grounds for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
If a person dies as a result of negligence by a doctor or other medical professional, the surviving family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit against them on the basis of medical malpractice. However, these cases are sometimes more complex than those involving other situations leading to wrongful death. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof and must provide evidence that the doctor or other medical professional failed to provide the same level of care that any other professional in the same position would have provided.
When Car Accidents Lead to Wrongful Death
Many wrongful death cases stem from car accidents caused by drivers who acted negligently, recklessly or with violence. All drivers are expected to behave responsibly and owe a duty of care to ensure that they are as careful as possible while on the road to avoid accidents. This means that they must abide by all traffic laws and follow the signs and signals, use caution and remain alert at all times. However, when a driver fails to do these things and instead engages in dangerous behaviors that lead to a car accident that claims the life of another person, they can be held liable for wrongful death.
How Are Funeral Expenses Covered By a Wrongful Death Settlement?
One of the types of economic damages sought by the family members of a wrongful death victim is funeral expenses. The plaintiff has the burden of proof and must show that the defendant acted negligently, recklessly or intentionally in causing the victim’s death or injuries that later resulted in their death. The elements that must be proven are that the defendant owed a duty to the victim but breached that duty; the victim suffered injuries as a result of the defendant’s breach of duty and died.
Only after all of those elements have been established can the victim’s surviving family members seek funeral expenses. A wrongful death claim is valid as long as the victim would have had legitimate cause to file a personal injury lawsuit if they had lived. Of course, the plaintiff must also show that the funeral expenses came to a reasonable amount. Some states place a cap on such expenses.
What Are the Costs Incurred During Funeral and Burial Services or Cremation?
Depending on the final arrangements of a wrongful death victim, the costs of funeral and burial services or cremation can vary. On average, a funeral can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $12,000. This often includes the casket, viewing if applicable, service fees, transport, embalming and other things necessary for preparation. If the victim wished to be cremated, the average funeral cost may range between $6,000 to $7,000, but these numbers do not take into account anything extra such as monuments, markers or flowers.
What Other Expenses Are Covered in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In addition to funeral and burial or cremation expenses, there are many other expenses that may be covered in a wrongful death lawsuit. These include economic damages such as loss of financial support and the victim’s income, loss of expected inheritance value, loss of household and other services and other out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of the person’s death.
Noneconomic damages are also available in a wrongful death claim. These things cannot be matched with any specific financial value such as loss of love, companionship and comfort or loss of consortium, loss of guidance, protection and counsel, loss of emotional and moral support and mental anguish suffered by the victim’s survivors. Depending on the circumstances of the victim’s death, these damages can also include the pain and suffering experienced by the decedent prior to their passing.
Sometimes, punitive damages are also included in wrongful death lawsuits.
What Are Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death?
Punitive damages are sometimes awarded to the surviving family members of wrongful death victims. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death, the jury might decide to make the defendant pay such damages as punishment for their behavior. For example, if a person died in a severe car wreck caused by a driver who willfully and wantonly engaged in drag racing, punitive damages could be ordered as a way to punish them for their reckless indifference.
How Wrongful Death Settlements Are Paid Out
Wrongful death settlements can be paid out in different ways. If the case is successful, the victim’s family members can choose to recover their settlement in structured settlement payments or in a single lump sum.
Lump Sum Payouts
A lump sum payout in wrongful death settlements means the victim’s survivors receive a single payment. This is often preferable because it can immediately pay for all the out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the wrongful death. Lump sum payouts are also considered more flexible.
Structured Settlement Payouts
Structured settlement payouts are made to wrongful death victims’ survivors in regular monthly or annual payments and serve as a steady stream of income. They, too, can help the surviving family members to pay off the remaining expenses from their loss such as medical expenses. However, they lack the flexibility of lump-sum payments because contracts involving them cannot be changed once signed.
What Are Some Common Law Jurisdictions for Wrongful Death?
Some foreign jurisdictions allow people to sue for wrongful death after they lose a loved one. While not all other countries allow it, those that most notably do include United States allies such as Australia and the United Kingdom.
Wrongful Death in Australia
Australia allows people to file wrongful death claims when they suffer the loss of a loved one due to negligence, recklessness or violence. The right for a victim’s survivors to file stems back to the Compensation to Relatives Act of 1897.
Wrongful Death in the United States
In the United States, family members or a personal representative of a person who dies as a result of someone else’s negligence, recklessness or deliberate actions can file a wrongful death lawsuit. Depending on the circumstances, there may also be cause for a criminal lawsuit against the person who caused the victim’s death.
Wrongful Death in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom gives family members of people killed due to medical malpractice, car accidents and workplace accidents the right to file wrongful death lawsuits. The main basis for wrongful death claims in the U.K. is medical negligence.
What Are Some Examples of High-Value Settlements in Recent Wrongful Death Claims?
There have been some recent wrongful death cases that ended up with high-value settlements. In Nebraska in 2010, the family of a 19-year-old named Tyler Thomas was awarded $2.64 billion after their loved one was killed by a fellow student. The lawsuit was filed against the student and Peru State College, where Tyler and the other student attended. $2.4 billion was from punitive damages.
In North Dakota, a $1.127 billion settlement was paid out to Shayna Manson and the families of two other women killed by Jordan Morsette, who caused a severe crash due to driving under the influence. Morsette’s blood alcohol content was 0.295%.
A Florida family recovered $700 million in a wrongful death lawsuit after their loved one, Aaron Doty, was attacked and killed by Jonathan Rodrigues and Kenneth Felipe at a party. Punitive damages in the case amounted to $400 million.
What Was the Case Study in the O.J. Simpson Wrongful Death Claim?
In 1994, O.J. Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Although he was acquitted in 1995, the victims’ surviving family members sued him for wrongful death. The jury determined him to be responsible for the deaths of his former wife and her friend and awarded their families $33.5 million.
Background of the O.J. Simpson Wrongful Death Case
O.J. Simpson was arrested in June 1994 after his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald were found stabbed to death outside of her home. Simpson became the prime suspect and was later found hiding out in the back of a friend’s SUV, attempting to flee. This was captured on television and was shown to millions of viewers. Simpson was later taken into custody after trying to get back home.
What Was the Legal Fault Attributed to Simpson?
Although O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the murder trial, he was determined to be at fault for the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend in the wrongful death case. A police officer reported finding a bloody glove in Simpson’s home. It was believed that the basis of the killings was the divorce between Simpson and Brown-Simpson.
Damages in the O.J. Simpson Wrongful Death Case
Ronald Goldman’s parents sought compensatory damages in the wrongful death lawsuit against O.J. Simpson while Nicole Brown Simpson’s family did not do that. The Goldman family was awarded $8.5 million.
What Else Should You Consider When Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
One of the most important considerations when planning on filing a wrongful death lawsuit is whether you have just cause to file. If your loved one would have lived and been permitted to file a personal injury lawsuit, it means their survivors are entitled to damages incurred as a result of the person’s death.
Something else to consider is whether you, as a surviving family member, or your loved one’s personal representative are allowed to file. Some states allow family members to file for wrongful death while others require the victim’s personal representative to do so on behalf of their survivors.
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
What Are the Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death?
Car accidents due to driver error, distraction, recklessness, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, fatigue and speeding rank as one of the top causes of wrongful death. Other common causes of wrongful death are medical malpractice, certain workplace accidents and intentional acts of violence.
What Is the Highest Wrongful Death Settlement?
The highest wrongful death settlement stemmed from the case Galdamez, et al. v. U-Haul Co. of Pennsylvania, et. al of 2014, which garnered $160 million for the victims’ survivors. The victims, 42-year-old Olga Galdamez and her 17-year-old daughter Jaylin were killed when their food trust exploded.
Wrongful Death Examples
There are many examples of wrongful death. A drunk driver with a blood alcohol concentration double the legal limit of 0.08% speeding and blasting through a red light, hitting a vehicle from the side and killing the passenger, a young man, is one example.
A second example of wrongful death is a female patient seeking help from a doctor due to concerns about intense abdominal pain. Instead of taking the woman’s concerns seriously, the doctor writes her off as experiencing gas. Weeks later, when she gets a second opinion, she is diagnosed with large, malignant ovarian tumors and dies a few months later.
In both examples, the surviving family members or the victims’ personal representatives would be able to file wrongful death lawsuits.
Chances of Winning a Wrongful Death Suit
The chances of winning a wrongful death lawsuit depend on whether all the elements of wrongful death are present. A person must have died; their death must have occurred due to the negligence, recklessness or deliberate actions of another person. The person responsible for the victim’s death had a duty of care; they must have breached that duty; the breach directly caused the accident or incident that led to the victim suffering injuries and eventually, their death. The person’s death led to their family suffering damages.
Who Gets the Money in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
When a victim dies due to wrongful death, their surviving spouse and children are first in line to recover the settlement money. If the victim wasn’t married or had children, their parents would receive the money.
Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death?
Depending on the state, the surviving family members of the victim or the victim’s personal representative can file a wrongful death lawsuit on the family’s behalf.
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