8 Types of Wrongful Death Claims and Compensatory Damages

Next of kin can often sue the party responsible for the loss of a loved one. See the types of wrongful death claims and related damages.

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

Car accident fatalities are a leading cause of preventable deaths, along with falls. Medical errors are now the third-leading cause of death in the United States, exceeding 250,000 deaths annually.

Here we discuss 8 common types of wrongful death claims, what counts as wrongful death, and who has the legal standing to file a wrongful death lawsuit. If you’ve lost a loved one, speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.

8 Common Types of Wrongful Death Cases

Every loss of life is a unique tragedy, however, many wrongful death cases arise from common types of circumstances.

1. Motor Vehicle Accidents

Car, motorcycle, and truck crashes happen on American roadways every day. Pedestrians and bicyclists are at higher risk of fatal injury when hit by a motor vehicle. Side impact collisions, also called T-bone accidents, are among to most lethal, accounting for up to 25 percent of car accident wrongful deaths.

The fatal crash rate for 16-19 year-olds per driven mile is three times higher than for drivers who are 20 or older.

2. Slips and Falls

People of all ages suffer fatal fall injuries due to broken steps, icy walks, or other dangers caused by the business or property owner’s negligence.

Elderly people are more likely to die from fall-related injuries like a hip fracture. When someone else’s negligence caused the fall leading to death, they can be held liable even when the victim was medically fragile or at higher risk for falls.

Most states have eggshell plaintiff rules, meaning the at-fault party is fully liable for causing the death, even if a younger or less fragile person would not have been fatally injured in the same type of fall.

3. Medical Malpractice

Thousands of surgical, medical, and medication errors happen every day. All too often these errors lead to wrongful deaths in hospitals and other medical settings.

Deadly medical mistakes happen in connection with:

  • Prenatal care, labor, and delivery (harm to mother and child)
  • Wrong medical diagnosis or treatment
  • Surgery
  • Cancer treatment
  • Emergency department treatment
  • Hospital care

4. Elder Abuse and Neglect 

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, whether in a nursing home or any other setting.

Case Example: Jury Awards $1 Million for Elder Neglect and Wrongful Death 

Robin Volpe was residing at Heather Knoll Retirement Village when she died as a result of a bad fall a few days prior.

Her husband, Stan Volpe, sued Heather Knoll for negligence and wrongful death. Volpe alleged that Robin would not have fallen trying to walk to and from the bathroom by herself if Heather Knoll had a better toileting program in place.

The trial court jury agreed, awarding $1 million in compensatory damages to Stan Volpe. The verdict was upheld on appeal.

5. Workplace Accidents

Deadly workplace accidents are usually covered under the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance, which should include 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.

6. Off-Road Accidents

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.

Case Example: Liability for Teen Death from ATV Crash 

Duane Hennarichs filed a wrongful death lawsuit after his 13-year-old daughter Sara died from driving an ATV provided by her friend, Nicolas Fina. The lawsuit alleged negligence by Roger and Karen Fina, who bought the ATV, their son Nicolas, and a woman who was supposed to be watching Sara on the day of the crash.

Although the trial court determined Sara was 5 percent to blame for her injuries, Mr. Hennarichs was awarded a total of $4.5 million. The case was upheld on appeal.

7. 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.

For example, faulty Ikea dressers are linked to the deaths of at least nine toddlers who were killed when a dresser tipped over, trapping the child. The latest lawsuit resulted in a $46 million wrongful death settlement with the parents of a two-year-old boy killed by the defective dresser.

8. Violent Acts

Intentional acts of violence, including assault and battery, armed robbery, 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. Read an example involving a death caused by fraternity hazing.

A civil wrongful death suit may be filed by the deceased’s family, even if the at-fault party is not convicted of criminal charges, as in the $33.5 million jury award against O.J. Simpson for the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Compensation for Wrongful Death Claims

While there is no way to measure the value of a human life, there are specific damages that can be pursued by the decedent’s estate or the immediate family members.

Compensatory Damages

Damages in a wrongful death case include economic expenses, which can be measured by receipts and wage statements, and non-economic losses, like pain and suffering.

Compensatory damages in a wrongful death case may include:

  • Medical bills and out of pocket expenses incurred by the deceased person related to the cause of the wrongful death
  • Shock, pain, and suffering endured by the deceased person prior to death
  • Funeral expenses and burial expenses
  • Lost wages and financial support the deceased person would have earned (and used to support family members) if they had lived
  • Loss of consortium – companionship, care, guidance, nurturing, and protection the deceased person can no longer provide to their loved ones
  • Negligent infliction of emotional distress (if a family member witnessed the violent death of the deceased)

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are only awarded by juries for behavior that is deemed to be malicious, reckless, or egregiously negligent.

Some states limit the amount of punitive damages in tort and wrongful death cases.

Case Example: Dialysis Clinic to Pay $383.5 Million Wrongful Death Award 

After three patients suffered cardiac arrest and died after receiving dialysis treatment, the families filed wrongful death lawsuits against clinic owners DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc.

The lawsuits alleged that DaVita was negligent, and withheld information from patients that a product used at the clinic could cause toxic chemical imbalances leading to heart attacks and strokes.

The Colorado jury awarded the families of deceased patients Irma Menchaca, Gary Saldana, and Deborah Hardin compensatory damages of $2 million, $1.5 million, and $5 million, respectively.

Each of the three families was awarded $125 million in punitive damages.

Elements of a Valid Case and Right of Action

The untimely death of a family member is always a tragedy, and even more distressing when it could have been avoided. The negligent person or business that contributed to the death of your loved one may be legally liable for your family’s damages. But you have to prove they caused the wrongful death.

Negligent wrongful death means the person (or business) did something wrong or failed to do what was necessary to prevent harm to others.

Most personal injury claims require proving four elements of negligence:

  1. The at-fault party owed the victim a duty of care
  2. The at-fault party did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do in similar circumstances
  3. The at-fault party’s errors were the direct cause of the victim’s fatal injuries
  4. The victim’s estate and/or next of kin incurred significant damages

Surviving Family Members’ Legal Right of Action

Most states provide a “right of action” for immediate family members of the person who was wrongfully killed. Family members should always retain a licensed personal injury attorney who specializes in wrongful death cases.

Depending on the state, a lawsuit may be filed on behalf of the deceased person’s estate for the benefit of the heirs, or directly by the family members. For example:

California law defines who may bring a wrongful death action: 

“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent’s personal representative on their behalf:

The decedent’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession. If the parents of the decedent would be entitled to bring an action under this subdivision, and the parents are deceased, then the legal guardians of the decedent, if any, may bring an action under this subdivision as if they were the decedent’s parents.”

New York State Law sets forth: 

“The personal representative, duly appointed in this state or any other jurisdiction, of a decedent who is survived by distributees may maintain an action to recover damages for a wrongful act, neglect or default which caused the decedent’s death against a person who would have been liable to the decedent by reason of such wrongful conduct if death had not ensued…”

Texas survivor’s laws state, in part: 

“An action to recover damages as provided by this subchapter is for the exclusive benefit of the surviving spouse, children, and parents of the deceased.

(b) The surviving spouse, children, and parents of the deceased may bring the action or one or more of those individuals may bring the action for the benefit of all.

(c) If none of the individuals entitled to bring an action have begun the action within three calendar months after the death of the injured individual, his executor or administrator shall bring and prosecute the action unless requested not to by all those individuals.

Wrongful Death Questions

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 >>