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Understanding Wrongful Death Lawsuits

A wrongful death is the death of an individual which occurs as a result of a defective product, an intentional violent act or a result of negligence. If you are a surviving family member of a person who was killed due to one of these actions, you may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

Wrongful death lawsuits are relatively new. Wrongful death laws were not originally part of the common laws of the United States. However, at this point every state has established some kind of wrongful death laws. There are variations in state laws and a wrongful death personal injury attorney who is familiar with your state can help answer your questions and file your wrongful death lawsuit for you.

Do I Have Grounds for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

In order to have a wrongful death claim the following must be true:

  • The defendant's actions in part or in whole caused the death. This can be with or without the intention of injuring or killing the victim.
  • The defendant was negligent or liable for the death.
  • There are surviving family members who have lost income or suffered emotional distress as a direct result of the death.

Who can file a wrongful death case?
In most states immediate family members may file a wrongful death lawsuit. In some states potential plaintiffs have been expanded to include grandparents, legal dependents and other extended family members. If a minor is eligible to file a wrongful death claim he may need to be represented in court by a guardian. A wrongful death attorney who is an expert in the wrongful death laws of your state can answer questions of eligibility.

Who is Responsible for a Wrongful Death?

Strict liability:
If a wrongful death has occurred as a result of a defective or recalled product you may be able to file a wrongful death case against the company who manufactured or sold the product. A company is responsible for producing products that are not dangerous. A company does this through safe design and manufacturing methods and fully testing a product prior to selling it. If the company fails in this duty and produces a product which kills a person, a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed. Product liability laws are designed to protect consumers from defective products. The death sustained by the consumer could result in the manufacturer having to pay monetary damages to the surviving family members. An example of this is pharmaceutical drugs which may have entered the market without adequate testing or drugs that have an adverse affect when combined with other medications. If a company fails to adequately test new drugs and the product is rushed to market and a death results, a company may be responsible for compensating the surviving family members of the deceased.

Tort of Negligence:
A wrongful death may also result from an individual's negligence. Negligence is conduct that does not meet the behavior required from a reasonable person to protect others from harm. If someone is found negligent and death results, the surviving members of the deceased can seek compensation. Traffic Accident deaths often result from an act of negligence. For example, if a driver runs a red light and kills another driver the surviving members of the deceased might file a wrongful death case in addition to any criminal charges filed against the driver. Medical malpractice cases are also often the result of negligent behavior on the part of doctors, nurses, hospitals or clinics.

Intentional Tort:
The final way a wrongful death could occur is from an intentional act of violence. An intentional violent act is called an intentional tort and results from an intentional act which causes a civil wrong. If an intentional tort results in death you may be able to file a civil personal injury lawsuit in addition to filing a criminal lawsuit. Common intentional torts are: assault and battery, slander, false imprisonment, trespassing on land and inflicting emotional distress. Assault is a common intentional tort which could result in death. A person may be found criminally not guilty and still be sued civilly in a wrongful death case. One of the most famous cases was the O.J. Simpson murders. He was acquitted of murder in criminal court but lost his civil trial and was liable to pay $33.5 million dollars in compensation to the surviving family members of Ronald Goldman's family.

Understanding Compensation for a Wrongful Death Claim

As a family member you may be entitled to compensation. The following list may vary by state and damages may be limited by state statutes. Additionally, certain losses may be harder to prove that others.

  • All expenses related to death
  • Future earnings until retirement or death
  • Future pension and medical coverage lost due to death
  • Pain and suffering of surviving family members
  • Any cost associated with loss or care and companionship
  • Punitive damages

The damages awarded will be determined based on the status of the deceased at the time of death. Relevant characteristics might include age, earning capacity, life expectancy and intelligence. If an adult with several dependants dies there will be a loss of income as well as parental responsibilities. A jury will hear all of the evidence and determine the compensation awarded. A court could set aside the jury's award and order a new trial if the court determines that the evidence does not justify the amount awarded.

Certain states may allow additional compensation in the form of punitive damages. These damages may be allowed in violent crimes to deter similar future behavior. Many states, however, do not allow punitive damages. If the state does not have a specific statute addressing punitive damages the courts have generally held that punitive damages are allowed.

Hiring a Wrongful Death Lawyer

There are many issues to consider in filing a wrongful death lawsuit. What was the cause of death? How much compensation should I try to recover? Do I fully understand the statute of limitations for my state? Given the complexity of wrongful death lawsuits it makes sense to contact a wrongful death attorney to assist you in filing a wrongful death lawsuit. A personal injury attorney familiar with wrongful death procedures can help gather evidence, fill out paperwork, hire experts and develop a solid wrongful death lawsuit.

Wrongful death actions do have a limited time period or "statute of limitations" in which you must file your wrongful death lawsuit. If this time period expires you will not be able to receive compensation from the wrongful death. This time period will vary from state to state but it generally lasts from 1-3 years after the wrongful death. Some states allow a lawsuit to be filed from the date of the discovery of the wrongful death not the actual victim's death. Certain states have special limits on wrongful death lawsuits based on product liability. These states maintain that the time limit begins at the time of the decedent's death even if there was no knowledge what caused the death. Some states have additional restrictions if a product has reached a certain age.