Wrongful Death Claims: Legal Definition, Proving Wrongful death, Limitations and Damages

What is a Wrongful Death Claim?

A wrongful death claim is a legal action taken by the survivors or estate of a deceased individual against a person or entity whose negligence or wrongful act caused the death, seeking compensation for damages such as lost income, funeral expenses, and emotional suffering.

Understanding Wrongful Death Claims

The sudden death of a loved one is a heartbreaking experience. When that death occurs due to someone else’s negligence or misconduct, it can add a layer of anger and confusion to the grief.

In legal parlance, survivors may be entitled to bring a wrongful death lawsuit when a death is caused due to another’s negligent or intentional act.

Wrongful Death Claim in a Legal Context

A wrongful death claim is a personal injury lawsuit where the victim can no longer bring their lawsuit. Instead, the victim’s survivors or a representative on behalf of the victim’s estate are the ones to file the claim.

A wrongful death claim’s fundamental premise is compensating the surviving family members and beneficiaries for their losses. These losses may include lost wages from the deceased, lost companionship, and funeral expenses.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?

This varies by jurisdiction. In most cases:

Wrongful Death Claim - estate and administration - tort law
  • Immediate family members (spouses, children, and parents of unmarried children) are typically the primary claimants.
  • Life partners, financial dependents, and those who suffer financially from the death might also be able to bring a claim in some jurisdictions.
  • In some places, distant family members, such as siblings and grandparents, can file a claim, especially if they were caretakers.
  • All potential beneficiaries of the decedent’s will may be eligible to file in some states.

Common Causes of Wrongful Death

Wrongful death claims can arise from various scenarios, including:

  • Car accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Occupational exposure to hazardous substances or conditions
  • Criminal acts
  • Defective products

Proving Wrongful Death

To succeed in a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must usually prove:

  • Negligence: That the death of their loved one was caused, in part or whole, by the recklessness, carelessness, or negligent actions of the defendant.
  • Breach of Duty: Demonstrate that the defendant owed a duty to the deceased victim. For example, a driver must drive safely, and a doctor has to provide standard medical care.
  • Causation: Show that the breach of duty directly caused the death.
  • Damages: List the quantifiable damages related to the death, such as hospitalisation, medical expenses, burial costs, and loss of income.

Damages in Wrongful Death Claims

While compensation can’t replace the person you’ve lost, wrongful death claims aim to ease the financial burden that often accompanies such losses. They can be:

  • Economic Damages: These are tangible costs like medical and funeral expenses, loss of the deceased’s expected earnings, lost benefits, and loss of inheritance.
  • Non-Economic Damages: Intangible losses like pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and loss of protection or nurturing.
  • Punitive Damages: These are awarded in cases of serious or malicious wrongdoing to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from committing similar acts.

Limitations on Filing Wrongful Death Claims

There is typically a statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death lawsuit. This period can vary depending on the jurisdiction but is often two to three years from the date of death. There may be exceptions, especially if the cause of death was discovered later.

Can A Company Or Organisation Be Held Responsible In A Wrongful Death Claim?

In many jurisdictions, if a company’s negligence, recklessness, or deliberate wrongdoing results in someone’s death, it can be sued for wrongful death.

For example, if a manufacturing company produces a faulty product that leads to a consumer’s death, or if an organization fails to adhere to safety standards, resulting in a fatal accident, they can be held liable. This extends to medical institutions for medical malpractice or corporations for workplace accidents.

In such cases, the company can be required to pay compensation for both economic and non-economic damages. The exact criteria and procedures can vary based on local laws.

Still, the underlying principle remains – organisations have a duty of care, and when they breach this duty, leading to a death, they can be held legally accountable.

What Role Do Expert Witnesses Play In Wrongful Death Claims?

Expert witnesses play a pivotal role in wrongful death claims by providing specialised knowledge and insights that can help establish liability, causation, and the extent of damages. Their testimonies lend credibility and weight to a claimant’s case.

For instance, in a medical malpractice wrongful death claim, a medical expert can testify about the standard of care expected and how the defendant’s actions deviated from this standard. An engineering expert might be called upon to explain the malfunction in cases involving product defects.

Economists or financial experts can detail the financial losses suffered by the family, considering future earnings and benefits the deceased would have provided. Forensic experts might reconstruct accident scenes to determine fault.

Their objective analyses and testimonies are essential in clarifying complex issues, helping the jury understand the nuances of the case, and bolstering the claimant’s arguments in pursuit of a favourable outcome.

Can I Still File A Wrongful Death Claim If There Was No Criminal Charge or Conviction Related To The Death?

You can still file a wrongful death claim even if there is no criminal charge or conviction related to the death. Criminal law and civil law operate on different standards of proof. In criminal cases, guilt must be established “beyond a reasonable doubt” a high threshold.

In contrast, wrongful death claims, which are civil actions, require the plaintiff to prove the defendant’s liability based on a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means it’s more likely than not that the defendant’s negligence or misconduct resulted in the death.

So, even if the legal system doesn’t criminally charge or convict someone for death, the responsible party can still be held civilly liable. Families often pursue wrongful death claims to seek justice, closure, and compensation for their losses, even when the criminal justice system may not have taken action.

Conclusion

The loss of a loved one is irreplaceable. While no monetary compensation can truly alleviate the pain and loss experienced, wrongful death claims offer a way for survivors to achieve some form of justice and financial support.

By understanding the ins and outs of these claims, survivors can make informed decisions and seek the reparations they might be entitled to.

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