Wrongful Death Lawsuits: Trial Process and Jury Awards for Damages

A wrongful death is one that occurs because of another's negligent or intentional act. In that situation a lawsuit can be filed on behalf of the decedent's estate. Members of the estate often include surviving spouses, biological and adopted children, and others deemed by the court to be beneficiaries of the estate. Friends, no matter how close, do not have the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit.

In a wrongful death suit, the plaintiff seeks compensation from the defendant in the form of monetary and non-monetary damages.

Monetary damages normally include the amount of money the decedent would have made during his working lifetime. It also includes such items as funeral expenses and medical bills.

Non-monetary damages represent intangibles. Intangibles are often the pain and suffering felt by family members. This includes the loss of the decedent's love and affection, moral support, guidance, and mentoring. It also includes the loss of a spouse's intimate companionship, referred to as loss of consortium.

To succeed in a wrongful death suit, the representative (plaintiff) has the burden of proof to show the defendant was culpable in causing the death of an individual. (Culpable is roughly equivalent to the word "guilty" used only in criminal cases.) To meet the burden of proof, the plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant's actions were:

  • Negligent;
  • Intentional; or
  • Such that made him strictly liable.

By a preponderance of the evidence means there must be enough evidence to show it was more likely than not that the defendant caused the death.

Causes of Wrongful Death

Wrongful deaths have resulted from:

  • Car, motorcycle, truck, and all-terrain vehicle accidents
  • Medical malpractice, including medication errors
  • Nursing home neglect and abuse
  • Accidents in the workplace
  • Defective products

Wrongful Death Laws

Every state has its own form of wrongful death law. The laws were enacted to provide financial compensation to those who suffered the unnecessary loss of a loved one. They were also created as a form of warning to those whose reckless or negligent actions might cause a future unnecessary death. The laws dictate how judges and juries evaluate wrongful death cases and render fair verdicts. They provide guidelines to rely on when assessing culpability and damages.

Although judges and juries are guided by state laws in wrongful death lawsuits, the value of a person's life and the effect his death has on his loved ones is incalculable. Therefore judges and juries have flexibility in deciding how much to award in monetary and non-monetary damages. Often their verdicts are based more on the emotional, non-monetary aspects of a case than the monetary ones.

The Jury Process

In a wrongful death trial, the jury hears evidence from the plaintiff and the defendant. Their duty is to listen and decide the outcome of the case based on the evidence before them. Before the jury begins its deliberations, the judge reads a summary of the state's wrongful death law to them. It clearly states what evidence the jury is to rely on when deliberating the case. The judge also gives the jury foreman a copy of the summary, called the court's charge.

The jury's first duty in a wrongful death suit is to decide whether the defendant was culpable in causing the death. If so, they move on to decide what amounts of money the defendant must pay the plaintiff to compensate for the monetary and non-monetary damages. The jury relies on the evidence presented to them during the trial. It's the plaintiff's job to prove the type and amount of damages. However, evaluating the worth of an individual's life is an almost impossible task.

Determining monetary damages in wrongful death cases usually requires complex calculations of the deceased's future earnings based on his salary, his pension plans, and other forms of income he might have accumulated if he'd lived. The jury can only base their monetary award on the proof before them.

Monetary damages can include:

  • How old the deceased was at his death and what his normal life expectancy would have been.

  • How much money the deceased was making when he died and how much he probably would have made during his lifetime if he lived.

  • How old his family and legal dependents were at the time of his death and how much money they would have received from the deceased if he lived.

  • The amount of medical bills incurred by the deceased for his treatment after the injury.

  • Funeral expenses.

  • Any other monetary amounts lost because of the decedent's passing.

Proving non-monetary damages normally requires emotional witness testimony from immediate family members, loved ones, and legal dependents. Each witness must convince the jury how great their loss is. There's no tool to calculate the impact of such testimony. Although different states vary on the type of non-monetary losses surviving family members and legal dependents can claim, we've included some of the most often considered.

Non-monetary damages can include:

  • The loss of companionship suffered by family members.

  • The loss of guidance and mentoring the decedent's children must endure.

  • Loss of consortium (intimate relations) to be endured by the spouse.

  • Loss of love, nurturing, protection, and other varied emotional support.

  • Other emotional losses the jury decides are compensable.

Most wrongful death lawsuits are settled before they reach trial. Defense attorneys and their clients are painfully aware of the impact witness testimony can have on a jury. Although most state laws put caps on the amounts juries can award in wrongful death cases, few attorneys risk a jury verdict which may be much higher than the amount required to settle the case.

Wrongful Death Case Attorneys

If you or someone you know has lost a loved one because of the negligence of another person or entity, contact an experienced personal injury attorney. Wrongful death cases should never be attempted by a non-lawyer. These cases are extremely complex and technical.

Wrongful death suits require extensive pre-trial discovery, including depositions, interrogatories, medical testimony, actuarial accounting and extrapolations, and more. This all requires substantial legal expertise and large amounts of advanced funding.

Case Studies:

Fraternity Hazing Results in Student Death
In this case, a student dies of alcohol poisoning and hypothermia after being left out in the cold by fraternity members during a pledging ritual.

Plaintiff Fights to Keep Trial in Their Own State
In this wrongful death case the plaintiff is seeking damages in New York court for the death of her husband while he was at work on a job in Connecticut.

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