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.

Print Friendly and PDF

How Much Is Your Claim Worth?

Find out now with a FREE case review from an attorney...

Ask a Wrongful Death Question

Unfortunately, we can only accept questions from the U.S.A. and we can't guarantee a response. Please proofread your submission, and DON'T WRITE IN ALL CAPS!

Disclaimer: Information provided in our response is NOT formal legal advice. It is generic legal information based on the very limited information provided. Under no circumstances should the information in our response, or anywhere else on this site be relied upon when deciding the proper course of a legal matter. Always get a formal case review from a licensed attorney.

Previous Questions & Answers...

Husband died in welding accident... 
My husband was working at a sewage station where some of the tanks were in serious need of repair. The tank he was working in was to have new pipe and …

Who gets settlement money? 
Here's the situation in a nutshell: Sister was administrator of mother's estate. Sister filed a malpractice lawsuit with brother and herself as beneficiaries. …

My mom died after falling and breaking her hip at her nursing home... 
My mother was living in a nursing home and was in a situation where she was not supposed to be bearing weight on her own and not walking on her own. They …

My mom died falling down stairs in a rented home with no handrail... 
My mom fell down some stairs in my brother's rented house and hit her head and died. She was holding my niece (who didn't have a scratch on her). She hit …

Passed away on business travel? 
Is an employee covered by workers' compensation if they are out of town on business travel? The employee passed away after business hours, after they had …

Must an estate be in probate before filing our cause in District Court?  
Our SF 95 FTCA claims for negligence and wrongful death of our son, a decorated OIF veteran received a final denial by the VA and DOD representatives on …

Our tormented son shot himself... 
Our son was in love with a women who left her abuser after 9 years. They moved in together and the person broke into our son's home, beating him. Our son …

Compensation split for wife vs. mother? 
My husband passed away. Myself, my mother-in-law and my children have filed suit against the other parties. My mother-in-law has a claim because she supposedly …

Workers Compensation Death Benefits? 
A family member died in California. He worked 21 years for his company in a high stress management job and had a fatal heart attack during work. He has …

Plavix Dangerous Side Effects Question... 
My mother died 3 months after the doctor changed her high blood pressure medication to Plavix. She died in 2002 which was before the black box warning …

Never- Ending Settlement Proceedings... 
I am writing on behalf of a friend of mine who has been the plaintiff in an ongoing and apparently never-ending wrongful death lawsuit. What I am wondering …

Delaying Settlement Negotiations in Wrongful Death Case... 
My mother suffered injuries when a pharmacy delivered medication to her and she overdosed. She recovered from that incident but then slowly declined until …

Pursuing Injury Settlement After Death of Family Member? 
This is a question relating to a slip and fall case in the state of Florida... The person who fell and was injured died 13 months after the accident …

Who gets the money from a wrongful death suit? 
My son's wife threw him out of their home in Colorado. He was living in WV when he was shot and killed. If we would win a wrongful death suit, would she …

Daughter Died While in Foster Care... 
My daughter was put in a foster home while on a visit with her father due to the fact he molested her, she took drugs and he deemed her a bad child. They …

Fall on Commercial Property Results in Death... 
My mother fell on commercial private property and was injured, about 2 weeks later she died. I think that the fall resulted in her death. I need to know …

Wrongful death due to a faulty defibrilator... 
My mother passed away a couple of days before my birthday because of a medtronic defibrilator that shocked and killed her while she was sleeping. She was …

Click here to write your own.

> > Wrongful Death Lawsuits

How Much Are Your
Injuries Worth?

Find out with a
free attorney review:

TYPE OF ACCIDENT
AUTO ACCIDENT
PERSONAL INJURY
WORKERS COMPENSATION
MEDICAL ERROR
YES! I WANT FAIR COMPENSATION