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Wrongful Death

Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Nothing hurts more than losing a loved one. It is a tragic fact that many wrongful deaths occur as a result of negligence. A wrongful death lawsuit can't bring the person you love back, but they can help you get compensation for your loss.

A wrongful death action arises when a person is killed as the result of negligence, product liability, or malice on the part of another person. Negligence might occur in a situation like an automobile or airplane accident, an accident at a workplace, or medical malpractice. The manufacturer of dangerous products might be strictly liable for deaths caused by faulty or unreasonably dangerous products, such as an unsafe automobile or drugs with dangerous side effects. Intentional violence that causes death can also be covered by a wrongful death lawsuit. In that situation, the person or persons responsible may also be prosecuted under criminal law. Close family members and sometimes other dependents can sue to recover damages that result from a wrongful death.

Families of the victim often feel pursuing legal action will only increase their feelings of distress. Some families do not immediately realize the impact a wrongful death can have on their lives, so contacting a wrongful death attorney is always a good idea. Our attorneys understand the delicacy of wrongful death suits and will try to resolve the wrongful death lawsuit as quickly as possible in a sensitive, tactful manner.

Wrongful death suits can recover the expenses associated to the wrongful death itself, in addition to any loss of salary, benefits, pain and suffering, companionship, and other factors that will increase the burden on the family already suffering a grave loss. Since all wrongful death suits will differ, we can help you determine what compensation each family member can seek based on the relationship between the wrongful death victim and the individual wrongful death survivor.

What Is Considered to Be a Wrongful Death?

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff brings a claim that the victim's death was a result of the defendant's actions or negligence. Once again, each state has its own laws regarding the requirements for a wrongful death suit. However, most states require the following elements be present for a wrongful death claim:

  1. A human being died;
  2. As a result of another's negligence or intention to cause harm; and
  3. The survivors of the deceased have suffered monetary loss as a result of the victim's death. 

To expand upon those elements, the party bringing the wrongful death claim will likely need to prove:

  • That the victim's death was in fact caused by the defendant;
  • That the defendant intentionally, recklessly, or negligently caused the victim's death, or that the defendant was strictly liable for the victim's death;
  • That there are surviving beneficiaries or dependents; and
  • That the victim's death has caused monetary damages to the surviving beneficiaries or dependents.

Bringing both criminal charges against the person or entity responsible for the victim's death, and filing a civil wrongful death suit, are both allowed to be brought against the guilty party. One does not preclude the other. This means that the plaintiff is not stopped from bringing both civil and criminal charges for the same incident. A wrongful death action would be a civil lawsuit, for which the standard for proof is lower than that required for proving a criminal action.

As previously mentioned, in order for a death to be considered wrongful, specific elements must be met. Some of the most common reasons a person would file a wrongful death suit include:

  • Deaths that result from medical malpractice;
  • Car accidents in which the defendant driver survives and is sued;
  • Exposure to hazardous substances;
  • Exposure to hazardous conditions while on the job;
  • Murder; and
  • Other criminal behaviors that lead to the victim's death.

Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death?

As previously mentioned, it is normally the immediate family members of the person who died (i.e., the “decedent”) who are permitted to sue for wrongful death. Although it depends on the laws of a state, this typically only includes spouses, children, and parents of the deceased victim. In general, the following people are those who usually bring wrongful death lawsuits:

  • Surviving spouses; 
  • Children of the decedent;
  • Dependent parents (i.e., the parent who lived with the deceased and relied upon the decedent for most or all financial support);
  • Personal representatives or designated heirs;
  • Domestic partners (note that the domestic partnership must be registered with the state where the partners live and now extends to all types of couples, not just same-sex couples);
  • Putative spouses (i.e., a surviving spouse whose marriage to the deceased was not valid, but a court could find that the spouse had a good faith belief that their marriage was in fact valid); and
  • Minors (aside from their biological or adoptive children) who were living with the deceased and were dependent on them for financial support. 

What Actions May Lead to a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

There are numerous scenarios that may lead to a person becoming responsible for another person's death. Specifically, in a claim for wrongful death, the person's conduct will usually comport with one of the following actions:

  • An intentional act, such as felony murder or other criminal behaviors; 
  • A negligent or careless act, like a surgery that would have been successful had it been performed properly (e.g., medical malpractice); or
  • A reckless act, such as a car accident.

What Damages are Recoverable in a Lawsuit for Wrongful Death?

Family members that sue an individual based on wrongful death can typically recover damages for the following:

  • Medical expenses and costs for funeral arrangements;
  • Loss of earnings;
  • Loss of inheritance due to the untimely death of the decedent;
  • Loss of benefits;
  • Loss of care, protection, and companionship to survivors; 
  • Pain and suffering caused to the survivors; and
  • Less common, punitive damages where the defendant's conduct was intentional, malicious, or egregious. 

How are Damages Evaluated in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

It can be very difficult to determine how much the decedent would have earned if they had not died. To simplify this process, each state has adopted its own unique life expectancy table. These tables have been designed to determine:

  • How long the victim would have lived if not for the incident;
  • How many more years the victim would have continued to work; and 
  • How long the victim would have survived during their retirement (if applicable).

The life expectancy table coupled with the victim's earnings at the time of their death enable a court or jury to estimate both the victim's loss of earnings and potential retirement benefits. 

How Do I File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Each state has a specific “statute of limitations,” which refers to the time frame that a person is permitted to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. If a surviving individual delays past the allotted time period, then they will be prohibited from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit in court. The clock for the statute of limitations usually starts when the victim dies and continues on for generally at least a year.

If you are looking to bring a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a loved one, you should consult a local attorney to learn more about the timing for when you must bring a claim for wrongful death in your area.

Do I Need an Attorney For a Wrongful Death Suit?

If you have lost a family member or loved one to wrongful death, it is in your best interest to consult with a skilled and knowledgeable wrongful death attorney. An experienced attorney can help you determine if their death was in fact wrongful, as well as help you through the legal process. Finally, they can represent you in any necessary court hearings, and file any necessary legal documents.

Call our office today at 212-994-7777 or complete the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.

What is a Wrongful Death Action?

You may have seen stories about high-profile wrongful death lawsuits in the news. A wrongful death action is a civil lawsuit generally brought against a defendant who caused someone's death as a result of negligence or an intentional act.

The parties involved generally involve the defendant (who caused the death), the decedent (the person who died), and the beneficiaries (person or people who have legal standing to bring the claim in court). In many cases, the beneficiaries bring the lawsuit through the estate of the decedent.

While the rules for these lawsuits can vary from state to state, the basic idea is that the beneficiaries can bring a personal injury suit on the decedent's behalf. Because these types of lawsuits are based on the idea of personal injury, many defenses that would be available in personal injury lawsuits are also available in wrongful death lawsuits.

What are the Elements of Proof for a Wrongful Death Action?

In a wrongful death action, the plaintiff is held to the same standard of proof as if the decedent had lived. In order to prevail in a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff has to prove certain things occurred:

  • That the decedent died;
  • That the defendant's negligence or intentional act was the cause of the death, or that the defendant was strictly liable for the death;
  • The decedent has surviving beneficiaries or dependents; and
  • The death has caused monetary damages to the surviving beneficiaries or dependents.

If the argument in the case is that the defendant's negligence caused the death, then the plaintiff is also going to have to prove the elements of a negligence case:

  • Duty of Care: that the defendant owed a certain duty of care to the decedent;
  • Breach of Duty of Care: that the defendant breached or failed to follow that duty of care owed to the defendant;
  • Causation: that the defendant's action directly caused the death of the decedent.

Keep in mind that if the wrongful death claim is based on allegations that the defendant acted intentionally in causing the decedent's death, the proof of negligence elements will not apply.

What are Some Possible Defenses to a Wrongful Death Action?

The available defenses in a wrongful death action depend largely on a number of things. Each state has its own rules about how wrongful death lawsuits are handled, and the facts and circumstances of each case will also affect what defenses are available to the defendant.

However, depending on the circumstances of the case, some available defenses may include:

  • No Causation: In order to hold a defendant responsible for wrongful death, there must be a link between the defendant's conduct and the death. The cause does not have to be direct, but the defendant's action has to be linked somehow to the cause of death. The defendant will not be held liable for wrongful death if the plaintiff cannot prove a causal connection between the two.
  • Self Defense: This defense is only available if the defendant had reason to believe that great bodily harm or loss of life was imminent. It is not enough for a defendant to merely state that they believed bodily harm was about to occur; that belief must also be reasonable under the circumstances.
  • Assumption of Risk: A defendant may make the argument that the decedent assumed the risk of their actions, which resulted in the death. This defense is not available in all cases, and requires that the decedent knew and understood the dangers involved, and then proceeded with the action or behavior.
  • Decedent's Involvement in an Unlawful Act: If the decedent was participating in an unlawful act when they died, the beneficiaries may not be able to recover any damages. The reasoning is that society does not want to reward unlawful acts. For example, if the decedent died while robbing a bank (and the defendant's action caused the decedent's death during the robbery), the beneficiaries will not be able to receive any monetary damages.
  • Release Agreement: The decedent may have signed a release agreement, which would bar a lawsuit in the event of the decedent's death. Some companies may require people sign releases before participating in particular activities, where they agree not to sue in the event of injury. While this defense may be available in cases of simple negligence, it may not be available in cases of gross negligence (where the defendant consciously disregards the need to use reasonable care).
  • Contributory Negligence: Some states may not hold a defendant liable if the decedent contributed to their own injury and death. In states that stick to contributory negligence rules, the defendant will not be liable at all (and the beneficiaries will not recover any damages) if the decedent contributed to their own injury at all.
  • Comparative Negligence: Some states have rules that use percentages of responsibility when it comes to fault. Rather than contributory negligence, this  "comparative negligence" rule will reduce an award of damages according to a percentage amount related to the decedent's responsibility. For example, if the decedent did something that contributed to their injury, and both defendant and decedent were 50% at fault for the incident, then the damages will be reduced by 50%.
  • Statutes of Limitations: Each state has its own rules about the time limits and deadlines on filing lawsuits, and this plays into one of the most common defenses to a wrongful death action. Many states require that the lawsuit be filed within 1-3 years after the injury is discovered. If the proper plaintiff does not initiate the lawsuit within the lawfully allowed time period, then the plaintiff completely loses their right to sue. 

Whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant in a wrongful death action, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney. Your lawyer can help you talk through the situation, determine if you have a valid claim, and protect your rights under the circumstances. Your lawyer can also ensure that your lawsuit was filed before the statute of limitations expired and represent you in court in order to achieve the best possible outcome for your case.