What Is Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is a legal cause of action against the party responsible for intentionally or negligently causing the death of another. Generally, wrongful death claims are brought in civil court by the family members, dependents, or personal representative of the deceased. The defendant in this type of claim can be an individual or an entity, such as a company or government. Our Phoenix wrongful death attorneys are skilled and experienced in handling the most complicated wrongful death claims.
Defining Wrongful Death
Wrongful death occurs by wrongful act, neglect, or default. A wrongful death claim can be brought if the decedent would have been entitled to recover damages had they lived. The responsible party is still liable for damages, even though the victim is not alive to collect them.
Wrongful Death by Criminal or Negligent Actions
Wrongful death can result from either intentional or negligent actions. Intentional acts may be criminal or simply tortious in nature. Someone who intentionally commits murder has caused a wrongful death. The same is true of someone who intends to harm but does not intend death. A robber who shoots his victim in the arm has caused a wrongful death if the victim later dies from blood loss, even if the robber’s objective wasn’t murder.
Most of the time, the goal is not to harm another person and overt criminal activity is not involved. Instead, those responsible for wrongful death have acted negligently, failing to exercise reasonable care in performing their duties. A homeowner who invites children over for a birthday party but forgets to lock the back door is liable for wrongful death if a child walks out and drowns in their pool.
No intent to harm was present, but the owner should have taken preventative measures. Numerous scenarios play out in this fashion, leaving family members without their loved ones and at-fault parties liable for something they never intended to happen.
How Is a Wrongful Death Claim Different From a Criminal Complaint?
A wrongful death claim leads to civil action. A criminal complaint results in criminal action. While both hold someone legally responsible for the death they’ve caused, they do so in two very different ways.
Criminal Cases Are Punish Wrongdoers
First and foremost, criminal cases are intended to punish the defendant for breaking the law. In the case of a wrongful death, the defendant must have intended to harm the victim or committed some other act in violation of local, state, or federal laws that directly led to the victim’s demise. When criminal proceedings are initiated, the goal is to punish the offender for their crimes.
Civil Cases Provide Financial Remedy
By contrast, a wrongful death claim is initiated to financially compensate the victim’s family for the loss they’ve suffered. Rather than punish the wrongdoer, the aim is to provide relief to the victim’s family or aid their estate. The damages awarded in a wrongful death case may be considered a punishment by the liable party, but that is not the objective according to the law. All in all, justice can be served through either type of action, but the outcomes are distinct.
Criminal Cases and Civil Cases Are Handled Differently
Criminal complaints can be filed by a family member against the individual they believe is responsible for the death of their loved one. However, official charges must be filed by a prosecutor. The prosecutor will then bring the case before the court if they feel it’s necessary to pursue a conviction.
The victim’s family certainly has a voice in a criminal case, but the prosecutor does not represent them. The prosecutor represents the government, which seeks to punish the offender for violating the law.
Wrongful death suits are initiated by a family member of the deceased victim who can either represent themselves or hire a personal injury attorney to represent them in litigation. As the plaintiff, this individual directly influences how the case proceeds, ultimately controlling whether the case settles or goes to trial.
A Criminal Action and a Civil Action Have Different Burdens of Proof
The burden of proof in a criminal action is much more stringent than a wrongful death claim. In a criminal case, the prosecution must establish that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt—in other words, there can be virtually no doubt in the jury’s minds that the allegations are true. If the jury is not satisfactorily convinced that the defendant committed the crime, they have a duty not to convict.
Civil cases, such as an action for wrongful death, only require that the plaintiff prove that the other party is responsible for the death by a preponderance of the evidence. A plaintiff must establish that there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the defendant is at fault, which is a much lower burden of proof to meet than in criminal cases. Those seeking justice in a wrongful death claim have a higher chance of success.
Even with an evidentiary standard that’s easier to reach, building a compelling wrongful death case is no simple task. The victim’s family members can secure the help of a wrongful death attorney to facilitate the process.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
The parties entitled to damages in a wrongful death suit will depend on the state. Some states restrict wrongful death cases to the decedent’s personal representative, while others allow the claim to be brought by immediate relatives (such as a spouse, children, parents, or siblings).
For example, Arizona law allows these parties to bring an action for wrongful death:
- Personal representative
A personal presentative may bring the action on behalf of any of the above parties if they have survived the decedent. The money awarded will be divided in proportion to each party’s damages.
If there are no surviving family members or guardians entitled to damages, the personal representative may bring the wrongful death case on behalf of the decedent’s estate. The damages awarded in this scenario would go directly to the estate as an asset.
A lawyer can provide specifics about who is allowed to file a wrongful death claim in your state.
Damages Recoverable After a Wrongful Death
The losses covered in a wrongful death claim will depend on the type of action being taken as well as the specifics of the plaintiff’s case. You might recover economic damages and non-economic damages (such as pain and suffering) depending on the case and location.
Generally, the following types of damages are recoverable in a wrongful death:
- Final arrangement expenses: The costs of a funeral, burial, or cremation could be recoverable in an action for wrongful death.
- Medical costs: If the victim did not die immediately after their accident or injury, they most likely required medical treatment. If they received emergency medical attention, stayed in the hospital, had surgery, received physical therapy, or required medication or mobility aids prior to death, these expenses could be compensable.
- Lost financial support and benefits: The decedent’s income may have supported their family prior to death. If they were the primary or sole breadwinner, their passing could be especially devastating for surviving loved ones. Fortunately, lost income could be recovered, along with any retirement or medical benefits family members have been receiving.
- Loss of services: Services around the home that were provided by the decedent prior to their passing generally have a financial value. Cleaning, doing laundry, maintaining the lawn, and making repairs are all examples of jobs that a spouse or child may do at home. In their absence, surviving family members would either need to pay someone else to do them or perform these tasks themselves. Either way, the costs associated with loss of services could be collected in a wrongful death action.
- Pain and suffering: Emotional trauma and reduced quality of life are among the types of pain and suffering that could be recoverable in a wrongful death claim. Surviving family members may have suffered the loss of companionship, comfort, care, guidance, love, affection, protection, or society. Damages could also be awarded on the basis of grief or depression.
Types of Wrongful Death Cases
There are two kinds of wrongful death claims—wrongful death action and survival action. The type of action being brought will determine which damages are recoverable.
Wrongful Death Action
A wrongful death action is a legal action to recover damages for the losses their surviving loved ones have experienced as a result of the death. A child who loses a parent also loses the love, guidance, and protection they provide, among other things. A spouse loses financial support, companionship, and much more. These losses are specific to the surviving family members and are recoverable in wrongful death action.
A survival action, on the other hand, awards damages based on the losses the victim suffered before their death. For instance, if the decedent racked up medical expenses or missed work due to their injuries, these damages would be recoverable in a survival action.
Essentially, the survival action is the injury claim the victim would have been able to make had they lived. Their right to damages effectively survives them, thus the term “survival action.” A survival action does not take into consideration the losses of the victim’s family.
Generally, it is possible to file a wrongful death action and a survival action simultaneously. An attorney can provide guidance to those seeking compensation through either type of case, making sure the claims are filed per the laws of your state.
Why Do People File Wrongful Death Claims?
Wrongful deaths are largely preventable, and it is this point that often drives personal injury lawsuits. The need to hold the at-fault party accountable for their careless, unsafe, or intentionally harmful action is a motivating factor for both families and wrongful death lawyers.
A wrongful death claim is a path to justice for many families, as they are able to hold the negligent party accountable for the death of their loved one. A victory in their case is a validation of their anger over the preventable loss of life. It’s also an acknowledgment of their grief and the hardship imposed on their lives at the loss of a caregiver, companion, or breadwinner.
The pursuit of justice through a wrongful death claim may also be an avenue to gaining closure. The family of the decedent is often looking to close this chapter of their lives and move forward. The aching feeling that the person responsible for their loved one’s passing can simply move on while their family is left to grieve can make this hard to do.
After winning their wrongful death case, the family may feel satisfied that they did what they could for justice—and then be better able to move forward with their lives.
Financial stability is also a common factor in the pursuit of a wrongful death claim or lawsuit, especially if the decedent provided financial support to surviving family members. Without their loved one’s contributing income, the family could endure severe economic hardship. Because a wrongful death claim compensates surviving families for the losses they suffered, they can recover the financial support the liable party took from them.
Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death
Anyone considering taking legal action against a liable party in a wrongful death claim should do so immediately. Each state imposes a deadline for filing a wrongful death lawsuit in court. For example, in Arizona, plaintiffs must file lawsuits within two years of the person’s death.
In most states, the wrongful death statute of limitations is the same as the statute of limitations for a general personal injury lawsuit, but there are exceptions.
Consult a Wrongful Death Attorney
In general, contacting a lawyer is the best way to find out what you need to know about wrongful death.
Those seeking justice in a wrongful death situation should contact a local attorney about the specific deadlines and laws that apply to their case. Many compassionate law firms offer free consultations for this very purpose.