Wrongful Death Lawsuits: Guide to Liability and Compensation

Questions about filing a wrongful death lawsuit? Learn how to prove liability, who can file wrongful death claims, and how compensation is calculated.

Wrongful death is a fatality that happens because of a negligent or intentional act. Sadly, wrongful deaths occur in many different circumstances.

As many as 40,000 individuals are fatally injured in car accidents every year, many caused by a negligent driver. ¹

Medical errors have climbed to the third-leading cause of death in the United States, exceeding 250,000 deaths per year. ²

No matter the cause of death, grieving families deserve to see the at-fault party held responsible for their actions. Just as importantly, the family deserves compensation to help with their financial and emotional losses.

Common Causes of Wrongful Death

Every loss of life is a unique tragedy; however, the most common causes of wrongful death involve:

Vehicle Accidents: Car, motorcycle, and truck crashes happen on American roadways every day. Side impact collisions, also called T-bone accidents, are among to most lethal, accounting for up to 25 percent of car crash fatalities.

Off-road vehicles are another leading cause of fatal injuries, particularly for riders and drivers under 16 years of age. More than 600 deaths each year involve ATVs and other off-road vehicles.

Slips and Falls: Tragically, slip and falls are a leading cause of accidental death for senior citizens. People of all ages can suffer fatal fall injuries due to broken steps, icy walks, or other dangers caused by the property owner’s negligence.

Medical Errors: Thousands of surgical, medical, and medication errors happen every day, all too often with fatal consequences.

Elder Abuse: Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are meant to provide a safe and dignified environment for the elderly in our society. Fatal neglect and abuse of the elderly is always a wrongful death.

Workplace Accidents: Deadly workplace accidents are usually covered under the employer’s worker’s compensation insurance that includes death benefits for the worker’s family.

Depending on the circumstances, the family may have grounds to pursue wrongful death claims against the company’s liability insurance, other employees or customers, machinery manufacturers, and more.

Defective Products: Defective products and machinery fatally injure people of all ages. Wrongful death claims are included in product liability lawsuits against manufacturers who distributed faulty products.

Violent Acts: Intentional acts of violence, including assault and battery, rape and other criminal attacks that result in death can be prosecuted by the state in criminal court. Violent acts can also be the basis for a wrongful death civil lawsuit brought by the family.

Proving a Wrongful Death Claim

A wrongful death lawsuit is an action filed in court to seek monetary damages from a person (or entity) whose negligence caused another person’s death.

Understanding the Parties Involved

The person who died is called the decedent.

The persons filing the wrongful death lawsuit are the plaintiffs.

The person accused of causing death is the defendant.

The plaintiff is usually a family member, like the parent or spouse of the decedent, acting as the representative of the decedent’s estate, along with other family members.

Plaintiffs often include surviving spouses, biological and adopted children, and others deemed by the court to be beneficiaries of the estate. Friends of the decedent, no matter how close, do not have the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit.

If the decedent had a will that named an executor or administrator of the estate, the executor might represent the estate in wrongful death suit, even if they are not a family member.

A wrongful death lawsuit can name one or more defendants, such as:

  • An individual, like a drunk driver
  • A business owner, like the owner of the bar that served the drunk driver
  • An “entity” like a hospital or nursing home
  • A corporation, like the manufacturer of fatally defecting machinery
  • A government agency, like a county’s highway department.

Fault for the Wrongful Death

To succeed in a wrongful death suit, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to show the defendant was at fault in causing the death of an individual.

To meet the burden of proof, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s actions were:

  • Negligent: The person did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do, like drunk driving.
  • Intentional: The person deliberately set out to cause severe injury or death, like assault and battery.
  • Strictly Liable: Strict liability means the person is legally responsible even if they didn’t do anything wrong. For example, in some states, a dog owner is strictly liable if the dog kills a child, even when the dog owner took every reasonable precaution.

Evidence Supporting a Wrongful Death Claim

The available evidence will depend on the circumstances surrounding the decedent’s death.

When a defendant has already been criminally convicted of fatally injuring a person, records of their conviction will be extremely helpful in proving fault.

If the defendant manages to avoid a conviction, the family can still pursue a civil claim.

Case Summary: Criminal Acquittal No Bar to Wrongful Death Verdict

Football legend O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her companion Ronald L. Goldman, on the evening of June 12, 1994.

In a much-publicized criminal trial in 1995, the jury found Simpson not guilty of the two murders.

Ronald Goldman’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson in California Superior Court.

Despite Simpson’s acquittal in criminal court, on February 5, 1997, a civil jury unanimously found Simpson liable for the wrongful death and battery of Ron Goldman and battery against Nicole Simpson.

Simpson was ordered to pay $33,500,000 in damages.

In a criminal trial, the jury is required to find the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

On the other hand, in a wrongful death lawsuit, the defendant can be found liable based on a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning the death was more likely than not caused by the defendant.

Types of evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit may include:

  • Police reports showing a negligent driver’s fault for a fatal accident, including evidence of drug or alcohol use, along with the driver’s blood alcohol level. Police reports are also created as part of criminal investigations into violent crimes.
  • Witness accounts of the incident linking the defendant to the wrongful death. Independent witness testimony can be compelling evidence at trial.
  • Medical records are important to many kinds of wrongful death cases and may include the victim’s medical records as well as the defendant’s medical records.
  • Expert testimony might be provided by accident reconstruction, mechanical engineers and similar specialists for product liability cases, medical experts, and more.
  • Corporate records can reveal a company’s quality control practices, materials used in products, testing that may have revealed defects in a product, as well as other internal records and communications that can prove negligence.

You’ll need a skilled personal injury attorney to identify and subpoena much of the evidence you’ll need to win your case.

Factors in Wrongful Death Compensation

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 money values that can be calculated, like the amount of money the decedent would have made during their working lifetime. It also includes costs such 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.”

Crime Victim’s Family Compensation

Families of homicide victims may be eligible for financial assistance through the state’s crime victim’s compensation fund.

The benefits for families often include:

  • Funeral expenses
  • Grief counseling
  • Crime scene cleanup for homicides in private residences
  • Emergency expenses

Emotional Aspects Considered

Every state has wrongful death laws enacted to provide compensation to those who suffered the needless loss of a loved one. Laws also serve as a 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 liability and damages.

Although state laws in wrongful death lawsuits guide judges and juries, the value of a person’s life and the effect of their death on loved ones can’t be measured.

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 monetary ones.

When calculating financial losses, factors considered include:

  • The age of the decedent
  • The income of the decedent
  • The decedent’s general health
  • The age and living arrangements of the decedent’s children
  • Other persons financially dependent on the decedent
  • The decedent’s level of education or special training
  • The decedent’s benefits, like health insurance provided to the family

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. Different states vary on the type of non-monetary losses surviving family members and legal dependents can claim.

Financial losses 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) suffered 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.

When the wrongful death happened because the defendant’s negligence was particularly malicious or egregious, the jury may also award punitive damages.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and may run to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Why You Need an Attorney

Wrongful death lawsuits are always high-dollar claims involving complex litigation. These cases are also time-sensitive. Despite the family’s overwhelming grief, the statute of limitations is running, meaning a lawsuit must be filed before the legal deadline.

The insurance companies won’t care about your grief or what’s best for your family. There is no way for a family member to recover the amount of compensation a skilled attorney can pursue.

Cases with multiple liable parties, including corporate defendants, are extremely challenging to litigate. All 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 advanced funding.

Also, bear in mind that many states have special rules for handling compensation paid to children. An attorney will make sure the cost of administrating settlements paid to the decedent’s children will be covered by the defendants, not taken out of the children’s award.

Talk to an experienced wrongful death attorney from the start. Most attorneys won’t charge for the initial consultation and will represent you on a contingency fee basis, meaning the attorney won’t get paid until the family does.

There’s too much at stake to try handling a wrongful death case on your own. Find out what a good attorney can do for you and your family.

Wrongful Death Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>