What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Wrongful death occurs when a person dies as a result of someone else’s negligence or intentional wrong. A lawsuit is a legal action a family member of the deceased takes to recover damages from the negligent party.
It is essential to understand that this is a civil, not a criminal lawsuit. Only public prosecutors can bring criminal charges against the perpetrator. You may file a wrongful death lawsuit against the negligent person or organization regardless of a criminal case.
Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death?
Usually, an immediate family member, such as a parent or spouse, sues in the event of wrongful death. They sue because they have lost companionship, have suffered emotionally, and incurred costs like medical expenses, lost income, and funeral expenses.
Depending on the situation, other people may sue for wrongful death. Non-married partners may sue in some states, as may more distant family members like grandparents. Anyone financially dependent on the person who died may sue if state law allows it, even if they are not family.
How Do I Know if I Have a Case?
Negligence can be tricky to determine, especially for non-lawyers, and if you are coping with grief. This is a difficult and confusing time. If someone’s mistake or carelessness led to your loved one’s death, you probably have a case. An intentional wrong, such as an assault that ultimately led to death, may be both criminal and grounds for a civil wrongful death lawsuit.
The best way to determine if you have a case for wrongful death is to consult with an experienced lawyer. A law firm should offer you a free case evaluation to answer your questions, clarify the laws, and provide advice. They may offer their ongoing services, but you are under no obligation to hire the first lawyer who provides a consultation.
How Do I File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Before you start a lawsuit, find the right lawyer. Legal representation is not required, but winning your case is unlikely without the expertise and experience of a wrongful death lawyer. Personal injury lawyers specializing in these types of lawsuits understand the relevant state laws, negotiate settlements, and litigate in court if necessary. They will give you the best chance of winning and maximizing damages.
- Filing a Complaint
Your lawyer will begin the lawsuit by filing a complaint that outlines the case against the defendants. This serves to notify them and to make the lawsuit official. You may or may not get a response, but the case proceeds nonetheless.
- Investigation and Discovery
This is when official investigations begin. The defendant’s attorneys will try to prove they were not negligent in the death. Your lawyer will continue to gather evidence and work with witnesses and experts to prove negligence. During discovery, both sides can share information and hold depositions.
- Trying for a Settlement
You will get closure and compensation sooner if the other side is willing to settle. They do not have to admit negligence, and many will negotiate because a trial is often costlier. Your lawyer will push for negotiations and try to get you a quick, fair settlement.
- Going to Trial
Going to trial if negotiations fail is your decision. Your lawyer will advise you but should respect your choice. During a trial, a judge and jury listen to evidence and testimony from both sides. If the jury finds in your favor, they will also award damages.
- Delays in Recovering Damages
If you go to trial and win, you may not yet be at the end of the legal journey. The other side may appeal, seeking to get the verdict overturned. They may try to have damages reduced. They may also be unable or unwilling to pay, in which case your lawyer will have to take additional steps to get your compensation.
Is There a Time Limit on Filing?
Yes. Each state sets a time limit on wrongful death lawsuits. This is called the statute of limitations. It varies by state, but two or three years from the time of death is typical. Some states have a discovery rule, which may extend the statute. This means that you may get more time if the negligence was not apparent at the time of death. If you discovered it later, the time limit may begin to run at that point.
What Can I Recover in Damages from a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Damages amounts vary by individual cases, and no one can predict an exact amount. Many factors come into play, but your lawyer can provide a reasonable estimate and maximize the amount as much as possible. Determining factors include:
- Funeral and medical costs
- The deceased’s income that dependents will no longer benefit from in the future
- Loss of companionship
- The deceased’s pain and suffering
- Survivors’ pain and suffering
Another factor is the age of the victim. Cases involving children and elderly family members, because they do not earn an income, usually do not result in significant damages. You can still seek damages for these losses to compensate for emotional suffering, medical bills, and funeral costs, but the totals are usually much less.
A wrongful death lawsuit may seem like a big step to take, but if your loved one’s death resulted from someone else’s carelessness, they should be held accountable. Talk to a lawyer with experience handling these cases to help make your decision.