What Is Wrongful Death?

A wrongful death lawsuit is filed when someone else causes a death, usually as a result of negligence. The plaintiff in such a case – the person who files the lawsuit – is generally a family member of the deceased. Wrongful death is a kind of personal injury case that often results from one of the following:

  • Medical malpractice when a doctor or medical facility makes a mistake that causes the death of a patient
  • An automobile accident
  • Exposure to toxic substances
  • Defective products or machinery
  • Dangerous conditions on property owned by an individual or a municipality, such as an uncovered manhole cover or a spill that causes a fatal slip and fall accident

There are, of course, a variety of other possible causes of personal injuries that might result in wrongful death.

The defendants in a wrongful death case are the people and/or organizations who are allegedly responsible for the injuries that led to the death. These might include a doctor, hospital, manufacturer, property owner, driver, or employer.

If the authorities have sufficient evidence that a defendant caused someone’s death intentionally, a homicide charge would also be brought by the local authorities and the responsible party would be arrested. This would then be a “criminal” case, which would be separate from the wrongful death “civil” lawsuit brought by the family of the deceased.

Criminal cases are between authorities and defendants, while civil cases are between citizens and/or companies/organizations. Criminal cases are brought to determine if a law has been broken, while civil cases are for the sole purpose of obtaining financial compensation for the injuries incurred. Even if a person or organization is found in a civil trial to be responsible for a wrongful death, no one would go to jail as a result unless a crime had been committed.

Settlements in Wrongful Death Cases

The majority of wrongful death lawsuits never go to trial. In most instances, the responsible party maintains an insurance policy that would cover the costs of the “settlement” – the funds offered to the plaintiff to compensate for the injuries. The plaintiff’s attorney negotiates with the insurance company to decide upon the amount of the settlement.

If the parties cannot agree on a settlement amount, the case would then go to trial. The parties always try to avoid this because trials are more expensive to all parties involved.

Depending upon the complexity of the case, it might take a long time to reach a settlement, however. “Pre-trial discovery” must be conducted by the lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants. This discovery process involves a variety of papers between the lawyers that ask questions about the case to find out what the parties claim to be true.

Depositions are also often conducted during which the parties are questioned by the opposing side’s lawyers.

For any settlement to be reached – whether outside of a courtroom or in a trial – “causation” must be reasonably proven. This means that the evidence must point to the responsible parties as the cause of the wrongful death. If the plaintiff hires an attorney, an investigation of any records, as well as witness accounts, will be gathered to make a case for causation.

Besides causation, the degree of responsibility of the defendants is also an issue. For example, let’s say someone dies on the job as a result of a faulty machine. If employees had warned the company that the machine was faulty and nothing had been done to repair it for some time, the company would be deemed more negligent than if a part came loose immediately before the accident occurred. In that situation, the company was not aware that a hazard existed. However, if the company had failed to regularly inspect the machine for wear and tear, it might still be found 100{f1f9f9c01afd80b5cbf5eb62b4dc52c71b03eb6f2de9df6e3a106729f0c3810b} liable for the wrongful death.

The amount that the deceased’s family can claim in a wrongful death lawsuit depends on the degree of negligence on the part of the responsible parties, as well as the amount of money lost as a result of the death. For example, if the deceased was a substantial earner in a family, the heirs suffered significant losses because that individual could no longer work and sustain the family.

If the deceased was a stay-at-home mother, there would still be losses incurred for her contributions to the family and the household. A father in this situation might have to hire someone to care for the children while he is at work, for example.

If the family is left with medical costs after the death, the settlement might include reimbursement for those expenses. Funeral costs are also often a part of the settlement amount. In some cases, funds for “pain and suffering” are allowed. This is money for the emotional stress suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions.

Some states also allow what are called “punitive damages” if the responsible party is found to have caused the death as a result of malicious misconduct or significant negligence. This could happen, for instance, in the case of a company that knowingly released toxic chemicals into a community’s water supply. If it can be proven that the chemicals caused a death, the company could be liable for the losses as a result of that death.

The age of the deceased is also considered in determining the amount of the settlement. Someone who was expected to provide for a family for a period of years will leave behind a greater financial loss than a child or an elderly person. Bear in mind that this is only a financial consideration, not an emotional one.

Wrongful death cases can be complex and insurance companies fight hard to avoid paying too high a sum in the settlement. For this reason, a lawyer is usually needed in order for a plaintiff to obtain the highest possible settlement. It is in the lawyer’s best interest to negotiate as large an amount as possible because the lawyer will take a percentage of the settlement as payment. If no settlement is obtained, the attorney is not paid for the work provided.