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When a person dies because of carelessness or negligence, a wrongful death lawsuit may be possible. Whether this is because of another person or entity (such as a car maker). Survivors can also potentially seek compensation for their loss, including lost wages from the deceased, funeral expenses, medical expenses, and lost companionship.
Wrongful death claims can involve all types of fatal accidents, from simple car accidents to extremely complicated product liability and medical malpractice cases. Persons, organizations, companies, and governmental agencies can be legally at fault when they act negligently or act intentionally.
There might be any number of circumstances that might give rise to a wrongful death claim, such as:
- Medical malpractice that causes the death
- Criminal behavior
- Occupational exposure to hazardous substances or conditions
- Automobile or airplane accident
- Death during a supervised activity
Wrongful death laws vary from state to state. Generally, a wrongful death claim has to be filed by a “representative” on behalf of the survivors who have suffered the damages. Usually, the representative is the executor of the decedent’s estate. The survivors are called the “real parties in interest.” In different states, some of those who could file the lawsuit include:
- Immediate family members. In all states, immediate family members such as spouses, children (including adopted children), and the parents of unmarried children can recover damages under wrongful death actions.
- Life partners, financial dependents, and putative spouses. These phrases mean different things in different states. In some states a domestic or life partner, or anyone who was financially dependent on the decedent, can recover. “Putative” is someone who has cohabited with another to whom he/she is not legally married, but the marriage was entered into in good faith.
- Distant family members. Some states allow other family members such as brothers, sisters, or grandparents to bring a wrongful death claim. For instance, grandparents who are raising a child.
- All people who suffer financially. Some states even allow unrelated persons who suffer financially from the death to bring a wrongful death action, even if they are not related by blood or marriage to the victim.
A wide variety of people, companies, and government agencies can be sued for a wrongful death. Say, for instance, a person has been fatally injured in a car accident that involves a drunk driver and a faulty roadway. Wrongful death claims could include the following defendants:
- The driver (or employer) at fault in the accident itself
- The builder or designer of a faulty road
- The government agent who didn’t provide adequate warning about a hazard
- A manufacturer, distributor, or installer of a dangerous or faulty part of the vehicle
- The bartender who served alcohol to the impaired driver
- The owner of the bar where the drunk driver was served and then allowed to leave.
Financial (or pecuniary) injury is the measure of damages used in wrongful death lawsuits. The courts have interpreted “pecuniary injuries” as including things like loss of support, loss of services, loss of companionship, lost prospect of inheritance, and medical and/or funeral expenses. A damage award usually includes interest from the date of death.
When determining the amount of damages, juries or courts consider the age, character and condition of the decedent, his/her earning capacity, life expectancy, health, intelligence, and the circumstances of the survivors who are seeking compensation. Usually the main consideration in awarding damages is the decedent’s circumstances at the time of death.
Sometimes, it is possible to recover damages even if the deceased person never held a job. For instance, a stay-at-home husband or wife, who contributes services, guidance and nurturing of the family. These contributions can be quantified in a wrongful death action.
Wrongful death laws differ from state to state. In fact, determining the state in which you can or should file a wrongful death suit is a crucial decision. Some states don’t allow certain types of damage awards, and many states have different statutes of limitation that establish the timeframe you have to file a lawsuit.
In some states a plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages in a wrongful death action, but in other states it is possible. Punitive damages are what are sometimes called “pain and suffering.”
If you have lingering questions regarding a potential wrongful death case, give the Advocates Law a call. We will help resolve your concerns and determine if you have a case.
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