When a person suffers an untimely death due to someone else’s negligence, their family is suddenly left reeling. They may be facing 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 to file a wrongful death lawsuit and seek compensation for the losses suffered in the person’s death as well as some recognized future losses. Here is a short guide to wrongful death damages and how they are calculated.
What Is a Wrongful Death Action?
Wrongful death is a civil cause of action brought by a deceased person’s surviving family or by their personal representative on behalf of their estate against the person or other entity that caused their death. The burden of proof for a wrongful death civil suit is lower than for a criminal conviction, which requires that the prosecutor show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Although every state has their own laws defining wrongful death, there are a few elements necessary to prove liability:
- Duty of Care: The plaintiff must show that the defendant had a responsibility to avoid behaviors that could cause foreseeable harm to the plaintiff (in this case, the deceased);
- Breach of Duty: The plaintiff must show that the defendant violated their duty of care;
- Causation: The defendant’s breach was the cause of the person’s death; and
- Damages: The deceased and their family suffered damages as a result.
Who Can Recover Damages After a Wrongful Death?
As stated above, every jurisdiction has its own laws controlling wrongful death actions, and this includes who may bring suit for wrongful death. In most states, immediate family members like spouses, children, and parents of unmarried children have standing to sue a negligent party for wrongful death.
Some states also allow any financial dependent such life partners, common law spouses, putative spouses (a person with reasonable belief of marriage, but due to a technicality are not), and others to bring suit. A few allow expansion into more distant relatives if no others exist and the relative has had financial or legal responsibility for the individual.
Another (and often easier) option is to allow the deceased’s personal representative (usually an executor, executrix, or court appointed administrator) to bring suit on behalf of their heirs. Any compensation then goes into that person’s estate, which is distributed as directed to those named in their will or through probate.
What Types of Damages Can the Plaintiff Seek?
Generally, wrongful death damage categories can be broken down into what the deceased person could recover had they survived, and losses that the deceased’s survivors will suffer after the death of their loved one.
For the first category, the surviving family can sue to recover medical costs that the person accrued before their death, and damage to their personal property. In addition to this, the family is entitled to recover:
- Funeral and burial costs;
- Loss of the deceased’s future earnings and benefits;
- Loss of companionship and support;
- Loss of inheritance;
- Pain and suffering, and
- Punitive damages may be awarded if the defendant’s conduct is deemed to be egregious, intentional, or malicious.
How Are Damages Calculated?
It is difficult, of course, to place an exact number on things like expected earnings because it requires the court to assume a hypothetical future that will never come to pass. Because of this, most states have tables to calculate how much the plaintiff can ask for based on a number of factors. These are commonly called life expectancy tables, and are used to guess how long the deceased person would have lived in total, how many years they could continue working, and how many years they might have lived after retiring.
Using the table and the person’s wages and benefits at the time of death, courts and juries can approximate what their wage total would be during their working years and the amount of potential retirement benefits they could collect.
Why is the Actual Award Lower Than 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 will be awarded is less than the number calculated above. This is due to inflation over time.
If you take the deceased’s wage at the time of death and multiply it by the number of years they could keep working, the lump sum would actually be overcompensating the survivors due to inflation. This is why you see a lower award in the judgment. Over time, the inflation evens these numbers out to meet the potential loss figure originally calculated.
Do I Need an Attorney for a Wrongful Death Suit?
Any legal action can be confusing and complicated, and this is only compounded when dealing with the loss of 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 make sure you have the best chance of success. They will be your advocate every step of the way and push for fair and just compensation during your time of mourning.