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A wrongful death lawsuit is a claim brought by the survivors of a person
who died due to the fault of another. The survivors can typically claim
damages for medical bills, lost wages, emotional suffering and funeral
expenses and in some cases may be awarded punitive damages, if the conduct
of the person who caused the death was especially wrongful.
What is wrongful death claim?
A wrongful claim is a civil action brought by close relatives of a person who died through the fault of another person or entity (such as a pharmaceutical company that produced a faulty medication or car manufacturer that manufactured a car with faulty brakes). Wrongful death actions are governed by state statutes. At common law, there was no way to bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of a family member, but state legislatures enacted laws to correct this.
The standard of proof in a wrongful death case is by a "preponderance of the evidence," meaning that it must be proven that the defendant was more likely than not responsible for the death. The preponderance of the evidence standard is lower than other standards in the justice system such as "clear and convincing" or "beyond a reasonable doubt" which makes a wrongful death case easier to prove than a criminal case regarding the same conduct.
Every state has a statute of limitations in bringing a wrongful death claim. This means that family members only have a limited amount of time to file a wrongful death action; otherwise the lawsuit will be barred because it was not filed in a timely manner. A person who thinks they have a claim should seek out representation as soon as possible to make sure that the claim can be filed before evidence is lost and before the statute of limitations expires.
Who can sue on behalf of a person who has died?
Close relatives such as parents, children and spouses can file a claim for wrongful death. In some cases, more distant relatives such as grandparents and siblings can also file a claim. Unmarried partners cannot sue on behalf of each other, even if they were engaged at the time of death. Some states recognize common law marriage, which would recognize partners who hold themselves out to be married as being legally married, in which case, they would be able to file a claim just like any other spouses.
In most states, a person who has been acting as a parent in a parent's stead in caring for a child can sue under a doctrine known as in loco parentis. This applies when a person has been fulfilling all the duties that a parent normally would in caring for the child, even though that person is not the natural parent.
Who can be sued?
If an individual was directly responsible for an accident, that person can usually be sued directly, and their insurance company may also be named as a party. A common example of this is a motorcycle accident that results in a death and was caused by the negligence of another person. If the at-fault driver was working for a company at the time and was acting "within the scope" of their employment, then the company may be sued as well.
Some wrongful death claims involve a faulty product, such as a motorcycle with a faulty ignition switch or a defective brake that can cause an accident and lead to death. In a products liability lawsuit, companies that manufactured a faulty product will be liable, as well as any who sold it. There may be a long chain of dealers and manufacturers linked to the faulty product.
In some cases, governmental agencies and employees are immune from wrongful death lawsuits. Charitable organizations may also be immune from suit, but if they have an insurance policy that covers legal claims, then the insurance company can be sued directly.
What are the damages in a wrongful death lawsuit?
In every wrongful death case, there are economic and non-economic damages. These are also known as special and general damages, respectively. In some states, punitive damages may be awarded.
Economic damages are those that are easy to calculate, such as medical bills, lost wages and funeral expenses. In many cases, experts will be used to help calculate economic damages. For example, if a family depended on the deceased for their income, an economic expert can help explain how much the family has lost by comparing the person's income or education level to their life expectancy and average retirement age. If the deceased was not employed but cared for children and fulfilled other homemaking duties for their family, a jury may consider the value of these services when calculating damages.
Non-economic damages are more difficult to calculate, and they include compensation for the mental anguish of the survivors, loss of companionship and loss of consortium from a deceased spouse. It is difficult to put a number on this type of loss, but a jury will consider the deceased's role in the lives of the survivors who have filed a lawsuit.
Some cases will also warrant punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish the person or entity at fault because their conduct was so egregious that others should be discouraged from following similar courses of action. Punitive damages are not allowed in a wrongful death case in every state, and in some states, they may be capped at a certain amount.
Contacting a lawyer
The death of a family member is a painful time. After a death, medical bills and other costs like funeral expenses begin to mount, and filing a lawsuit may be one consideration in figuring out how to pay the bills. The Doan Law Firm can help families investigate wrongful death claims and potentially file a lawsuit if we decide to take the case. We offer a free phone consultation, and we are open 7 days a week.
If one of your loved ones has been a victim of wrongful death, please call the Doan Law Firm today. At the Doan Law Firm, we care about our clients and are #1 in customer service. We charge clients no fees unless we win our case, so that means there are absolutely no expenses charged to you unless you receive a settlement or jury verdict. Contact us today so we can start helping you.
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