Few things are tougher in life than losing a loved one. The days, weeks, and months after their passing often prove to be physically, emotionally, and financially tough on friends and family members.
But when the death is caused by someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing, it’s even more challenging to deal with. Anger, regret, and unanswered questions linger like a thick fog with no signs of lifting. And even though you don’t want to think about the situation more than you have to, a wrongful death suit may be your best legal option for bringing closure.
What are the Elements of a Wrongful Death Suit?
In the most basic sense, a wrongful death occurs when someone dies due to preventable actions of another being. And even though every situation is unique, there are generally four key elements in any wrongful death case:
- Negligence – It must be proved that the individual’s death was caused (partially or in whole) by the carelessness, recklessness, or negligent actions of the defendant.
- Breach of duty – It also must be shown that the defendant owed a certain duty to the deceased victim. For example, a doctor owes it to a patient to provide reasonable care during a surgery. A motorist owes it to other drivers on the roadway to obey traffic laws and regulations. When these duties are breached, there’s potential for a wrongful death suit.
- Causation – It must be shown that the breach of duty played a role in the deceased’s death. In other words, a speeding motorist who runs a red light can’t be held responsible for another driver’s death when he just happened to suffer an unrelated heart attack at the exact same moment. There must be a connection.
- Damages – Finally, the victim’s death must generate quantifiable damages. These may include medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, loss of future income, loss of consortium, and/or pain and suffering.
When each of these elements is present, there’s a pretty decent chance that you have a wrongful death suit on your hands.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Suit?
The next major issue is the question of who can bring a wrongful death suit on behalf of the deceased individual. While every state has its own unique rules and stipulations, most wrongful death suits are brought by loved ones, including: surviving spouse, children, parent, personal representative or designated heirs, and/or minors living with the deceased.
“In some states, only the personal representative of the deceased will be able to bring a wrongful death action in court,” LegalMatch explains. “Any money that is then recovered will be placed into a special account or trust to be distributed to the people named above.”
What Sort of Damages Can be Recovered?
In wrongful death situations, both compensatory and punitive damages can be pursued.
Compensatory damages include things like the loss of the decedent’s earning capacity, loss of parental services, loss of advice and counsel, loss of companionship, loss of inheritance, mental anguish, and expenses associated with therapy.
“Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are available in certain cases, such as when the death is caused by a willful or intentional act or omission, or by gross negligence,” the Sloan Firm explains. “The purpose of these punitive damages is not to recover compensation for a loss but to punish a wrongdoer and send a message about the behavior that leads to the wrongful death.”
How Long Do You Have to File a Wrongful Death Suit?
The loved ones of the decedent only have a certain amount of time to file a wrongful death suit. And though the statutes of limitations vary from state to state, you typically have between one and three years. However, there are situations where the “clock” can be reset – such as when new information or evidence becomes available.
Putting it All Together
Nobody wants to have to bury a loved one. It’s a painful and heartbreaking process that often takes years to recover from on an emotional level. And even though a wrongful death suit won’t bring the deceased individual back to life, it can provide some degree of closure.
Speak with an attorney if you think it’s something your family should pursue.