Most states define wrongful death as something similar to “the taking of the life of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent act of another person or persons.” Explained in simpler terms, wrongful death occurs whenever someone dies from a careless, reckless or intentional act by another individual or organization.
Causes of a Wrongful Death?
Any type of negligent, reckless or intentional act can cause a wrongful death. There are, however, certain situations that are often the cause of a wrongful death, including:
- Motor vehicle crashes
- Medical malpractice
- Tractor-trailer crashes
- Nursing home neglect
- Unsafe working conditions
- Dangerous drugs
- Exposure to asbestos
- Dangerous products
Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death?
In order to know who can file a wrongful death claim, it is important to speak with an attorney.
In many states, it comes down to who is the designated beneficiary (a person or persons included in a will, insurance policy, annuity, etc.), or the closest surviving family member, which may include:
- Immediate family members (e.g. spouse, children, adopted children and parents of unmarried children)
- Distant family members (e.g. siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins)
- Domestic life partners
- Parents of a deceased fetus
- Financial dependents or anyone who suffers financially as a result of the death
- The victim’s estate
Who Can Be Sued for Wrongful Death?
A wrongful death claim can be brought against almost any wrongdoer, whether a single person, group of people, or a company. (There are often special rules that apply to governmental agencies and employees that an experienced wrongful death attorney can help you understand). By way of example, take a wrongful death caused by a drunk driver. A wrongful death claim, depending on the circumstances, might be appropriate against one or more of the following:
- The drunk driver
- The owner of the bar or bars that served alcohol to the driver
- The person or persons that actually served alcohol to the driver
- The manufacturer of the car the victim was driving if the car was defective in some way
- The company obligated to maintain the roadway if it was not properly maintained in some way
- The company that designed that portion of the roadway if design was defective in some way
- It takes an experienced wrongful death trial attorney to determine who should be held accountable when faced with such a serious and complex claim.
Why Should I File a Wrongful Death Claim?
When a loved one dies from negligence or recklessness, it is an extremely difficult thing to process for most people. The fact that the death was needlessly caused by the negligence or reckless act of another, rather than a disease or illness, makes it that much more difficult to bear. You may even feel that no amount of money could begin to compensate for the loss or provide the closure you and the victim deserve. That is of course true, but for many families the loss of the loved one can also cause severe financial hardship on top of the emotional pain. The financial effects may include loss of income to the family, medical bills, and funeral expenses. There is also the understandable desire, apart from the financial loss, to hold those responsible for the wrongful death accountable under the law. Finally, pursuing a wrongful death claim is vital to ensure the individual, company, manufacturer, or organization makes safety a top priority going forward. As unfortunate as it is, it sometimes it takes a successful civil action and payout to family members before this takes place.
How Do I File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Before you can file a wrongful death claim, you should first contact an attorney to determine whether the law permits you to do so. There are a number of factors that go into this decision, including your relationship to the victim, the state where you reside, and if the victim has a will designating a beneficiary.
While each state typically gives you one year to file a wrongful death lawsuit, each state has its own laws that must be complied with and there may be filing deadlines you and your lawyer have to meet beforehand. Additionally, any evidence or information pertaining to the case should be collected as soon as possible to avoid complications that could affect the strength or validity of the lawsuit. The collection of evidence is best done by an attorney experienced in serious cases such as a wrongful death claim. An experienced attorney will know who to request evidence from, as well as how to collect and preserve it in a way that will allow its use in the event of a trial.
Also, make sure that you do not sign away your rights while struggling with coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. You may be approached by the insurance company for the wrongdoer acting as if they are there to help. They are not. Make sure you consult with an attorney before agreeing or signing anything while you are grieving and without the benefit of a lawyer looking out for you.
Please note: A wrongful death claim is separate from any criminal charges stemming from the death. Neither of these cases will affect the other, meaning that even if a defendant is acquitted of a crime such as murder, they can still be sued in a wrongful death civil action by the victim’s family or next of kin.
How do I Pay for a Wrongful Death Attorney?
Typically, you do not pay any money upfront or for the attorney’s time if your claim is not successful. More specifically, wrongful death attorneys typically handle these type of claims on what is called a “contingent fee” basis. That means that the attorney is not paid for his or her time unless he or she is successful on your behalf.
Under a typical contingent fee arrangement, the client and the attorney agree that if the attorney were successful he or she would receive a set percentage of the recovery.
The percentage can vary depending on what is agreed upon by the client and the attorney, for example related to if the case settles before or after trial begins. The percentage may also vary in accordance with specific state rules. The responsibility for paying certain expenses, such as court costs and filing fees, deposition and expert charges, varies by state and attorney. So make sure you talk to your attorney about the fee arrangement, ask any questions you have and make sure you fully understand it.
What Types of Damages Can I Claim?
Two types of damages are typically available to those who make a wrongful death claim. These are:
Known as pecuniary damages, these are the damages that cover the financial loss occurring from the death of a loved one, which may include medical and funeral expenses, loss of financial support (e.g. spousal support, services paid for by deceased, etc.), among other financial losses.
Referred to as punitive damages in law, these damages can be claimed in cases where extreme harm or willful or malicious wrongs occurred that resulted in the death. While not every state allows punitive damages to be claimed or awarded, they are damages that are considered to be a form of punishment to the defendant. The purpose of punitive damages is to deter the wrongful conduct both by this defendant again as well as by others.
Coping with Loss and Grief after a Wrongful Death
Dealing with the loss of a loved one after a wrongful death can be extremely challenging. The range of emotions associated with grief are difficult to face for anyone, and could linger for years after the loss. So be sure to take care of yourself and the others affected by the loss by reaching out for help.
The help can come from many different sources including grief counselors and other mental health professionals, friends and family members, members of the clergy, and in-person and online support groups.
A grief counselor or other mental health professional can provide you with one-on-one personalized professional help. Friends and family can provide you with emotional and other support. Members of the clergy can provide spiritual help and are often experienced in helping others who have gone through the grieving process. Support groups give you the opportunity to learn and get support from others who are going through what you are going through.
In wrongful death cases, many times helpful resources become available and paid for as part of legal compensation, offering families and dependents a way to cope with the loss of their loved ones in a healthy way.
I Need Help, How Do I Get Started
The best way to get started is to simply give us a call: 877-862-4635. You can call any time, day or night. If we can’t answer, you will get a call back very quickly. If you prefer that we call you first, you can simply fill out a form on the screen and we will contact you shortly.