When someone suffers an untimely death due to someone else’s conduct, their family is suddenly left reeling. They may face extensive medical bills from the deceased’s fight for survival and other obstacles, all while grieving for their loved one.
In these circumstances, the grieving family may have the legal option of filing a wrongful death lawsuit and seeking compensation for the losses suffered in the person’s death, and some recognized future losses. Here is a short guide to wrongful death damages and how they are calculated.
What Is a Wrongful Death Action?
The surviving family members of a deceased person bring a wrongful death lawsuit. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the survivors allege that another person or entity caused the death of their family members. The other person or entity may have caused the person’s death through negligence or intentional acts.
The personal representative may also file the lawsuit on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. The surviving family member or personal representative is the “plaintiff” in the lawsuit in legal terminology. The person or entity sued is the “defendant.”
Although every state has its own laws defining wrongful death, there are a few elements necessary to prove liability in all states, as follows:
- Duty of Care: The plaintiff must show that the defendant had a responsibility to avoid behaviors that could cause foreseeable harm to the plaintiff, i.e., the deceased person;
- Breach of Duty: The plaintiff must show that the defendant did not fulfill their duty of care and engaged in either negligent or intentional acts that breached their duty;
- Causation: The plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach was the cause of the person’s death; and
- Damages: Lastly, the plaintiff must prove that the deceased and their family suffered damages as a result of the death of their family member.
In some cases, when a death occurs, the person who caused the death may be charged with a crime, such as murder, manslaughter, or negligent homicide. The state charges people with crimes when they commit criminal acts. The relatives of a victim can also file a civil suit for wrongful death. It is rarely done because the perpetrator usually does not have any assets with which to pay damages to the victim.
Who Can Recover Damages for a Wrongful Death?
As noted above, every state has laws controlling wrongful death actions, including who may bring suit for wrongful death. In most states, immediate family members such as the spouses, children, and parents of unmarried children who have passed away because of another person’s negligent or intentional acts have standing to sue the person or entity responsible for the wrongful death.
Some states also allow any person financially dependent on the deceased, such as unmarried life partners, common-law spouses, putative spouses, and others, to bring suit. Putative spouses are people who reasonably believe they are married but are not, in fact, because of some kind of technicality.
A few states allow even more distant relatives to sue if no closer family members or associates exist and the relative has had financial or legal responsibility for the deceased individual.
Another, and often easier, option is to allow the deceased’s personal representative to bring suit on behalf of the deceased person’s heirs. A personal representative would be the executor or court-appointed administrator of a person’s estate. Any compensatory damages recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit would then go to the person’s estate. It would be distributed to the deceased person’s heirs under the laws of intestacy or those named in the person’s will.
What Types of Damages Can the Plaintiff Recover?
Generally, compensatory damages in a wrongful death lawsuit are of two types. The first is the damages for economic losses the deceased person could have recovered had they survived. The second type covers the economic and non-economic losses that the deceased’s survivors suffer because of the death of their loved one.
For the first category, the surviving family can sue for reimbursement of the necessary medical care that the person incurred before their death and damage to their personal property.
In addition to this, the family is entitled to recover reimbursement for the following items:
- The cost of any funeral;
- The cost of cremation or burial;
- Loss of the deceased’s future earnings and benefits;
- The cost of counseling and other care necessitated by their grief;
- Loss of companionship and support;
- Loss of inheritance;
- Pain and suffering;
- Punitive damages may be awarded if the defendant’s conduct is considered especially reprehensible, intentional, or malicious, but they are generally only justified in rare cases.
How Are Damages Calculated?
It is difficult to place an exact number on things such as a person’s expected lifetime earnings because it requires the court to assume a hypothetical future that will never come to pass. Because of this, most states have developed tables that can be used to calculate how much the plaintiff may request to compensate for the deceased’s future earnings based on a number of factors.
These tables are commonly called “life expectancy tables.” They are used to estimate how long the deceased person would have lived in total, how many years they would have continued working, and the number of years they might have lived after retiring.
Courts and juries can approximate their total lifetime wages during their working years using the table and the person’s wages and benefits at the time of death. In addition, the lawyers and the jury can estimate the total amount of potential retirement benefits the deceased person would have collected if they had had a normal life expectancy.
Why Is the Actual Award Lower Than the Calculated Potential Loss?
When a family receives a judgment in their favor or negotiates a settlement, it is common to see that the actual amount they are awarded is less than the number calculated according to the life expectancy tables. This is because inflation is taken into account as a factor.
If the deceased’s wages or salary at the time of their death is multiplied by the number of years they could keep working, the lump sum that results would actually be more than what could realistically be expected because of inflation. This is why the actual amount awarded to the plaintiff could be lower than the amount that results from calculations using the tables.
Typically, the plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit employs an expert economist who makes the necessary calculations, can explain the rationale, and determines the amount of damages appropriate given all of the relevant factors. The expert economist may also calculate the loss of companionship, support, and inheritance.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for a Wrongful Death Suit?
Any legal action can be confusing and complicated, which is only compounded when dealing with losing a loved one.
An experienced wrongful death attorney can advise you of your rights, help plan an effective legal strategy, and help you gather the right evidence to ensure you succeed. They will be your advocate every step of the way and push for fair and just compensation during your time of mourning.