In short, a wrongful death lawsuit is a type of personal injury lawsuit that may be brought by the estate of a person who died as a result of the negligent or wrongful actions of another. Wrongful death lawsuits are commonly filed by a designated representative of the deceased person’s estate, which most commonly is either one of the victim’s children or their spouse.
Wrongful death lawsuits may be brought not only against individuals, but may also be brought against corporations, manufacturers, government agencies, or other organizations who may be legally liable for the victim’s death.
The purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit is to compensate the surviving beneficiaries or the decedent for various losses. These can include loss of that person’s companionship, loss of present and future lost wages, funeral costs, pain and suffering, punitive damages, or other related civil damages.
Because wrongful death lawsuits involve the negligent actions of another party, wrongful death lawsuits may arise from many different situations and involve numerous parties. Common wrongful death claims include:
- Fatal car accidents;
- Medical malpractice that results in the death of a person;
- Deaths caused by defective products;
- or fatal work related accidents.
However, wrongful death lawsuits may also be brought based on the criminal conduct of an individual or business entity, as well as other intentional tortious acts.
As noted above, a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil suit. This means that in order to file a wrongful death lawsuit, you must follow all of your local jurisdiction’s rules of civil procedure. It is important to note that there is a statute of limitations, or a time limit, in which you must bring a wrongful death lawsuit, or the lawsuit will be dismissed for failure to timely file.
Often, the deadline to file a wrongful death lawsuit begins from the time of the victim’s death, unless the cause of death or person responsible was not apparent at the time. In such cases the statute typically begins to run at the time in which a reasonable person would have discovered the reason for the death of the person and the responsible party.
Some common statutes of limitations are listed below, but courts may allow for exceptions depending on the circumstances of the death:
- California: Wrongful death lawsuits must be commenced no later than two years from the date of the deceased person’s passing;
- Texas: Wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within two years of the deceased person’s death;
- Florida: Wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date of death;
- New York: Wrongful death lawsuit must be commenced within two years from the date of the deceased person’s death; and
- Illinois: Wrongful death lawsuits must be brought within two years of the date of death.
If it has been less than two years since the date of death, or you meet one of your jurisdiction’s exceptions to the statute of limitations, then you should draft and file a complaint against the person responsible for the wrongful death with the clerk of the court in which you have decided to file your complaint.
After filing your complaint, the next step is to legally notify the person or business named in your complaint. Once your lawsuit has been legally filed, you will typically then commence with civil discovery, settlement negotiations, and finally appear in court, if necessary.
As mentioned above, the most common person to file a wrongful death claim is the spouse or child of the deceased person. However, wrongful death claims may also be filed by any of the following individuals:
- Partners of the spouse, including life partners, putative spouses, or domestic partners;
- Siblings of the deceased;
- Grandparents of the deceased; or
- Any other individual that has suffered financial harm as a result of the wrongful death.
In order to file and prevail on a wrongful death claim, the representative of the deceased’s estate must prove the following elements:
- The person wrongfully died;
- The death of the person was caused by the defendant’s negligent, reckless, or intentional actions, or the defendant is strictly liable for the victim’s death; and
- There is a surviving family member or other eligible individual who suffered financial harm as a result of the death.
Proving the above listed elements of a wrongful death claim oftentimes requires hiring an accident reconstructionist or other expert witness, in order to prove the liability of the defendant. Further, when proving damages, an expert economist may also be needed in order to correctly calculate the present and future lost wages of the decedent.
If you are in a situation where your loved one has died due to the actions of another party, it is in your best interests to contact an experienced and local wrongful death attorney immediately. An experienced wrongful death attorney will be able to help you evaluate your claim, ensure that you meet any deadlines, and help you file your claim against the responsible party. They can also represent you in a court of law, if necessary.