When a person dies as a result of another party’s misconduct or negligence, his or her estate may file a wrongful death lawsuit against the liable person or entity.
A wrongful death suit takes the place of a personal injury claim that the victim could have pursued if his or her death had not occurred.
Typically, a representative of the victim’s estate brings a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant on behalf of surviving family members. Often, a family member may file directly; however, there are many states that do not permit this.
Wrongful death suits can follow criminal trials. As a civil court matter, they carry a lower standard of proof than criminal cases do.
In a successful wrongful death case, a victim’s family receives financial compensation (“damages”) for expenses that the victim incurred from the time of the negligent or intentional act until his or her death, losses that the victim’s surviving family members have experienced as a result of the victim’s death, or both.
Although each state has laws that allow a victim’s family or estate to pursue a wrongful death claim, state laws differ as to which relatives of a wrongful death victim can file a claim. States also have different statutes of limitations for wrongful death cases.
A variety of situations can lead to a wrongful death lawsuit. In most cases, the liable party did not intend to cause the victim’s death. However, wrongful death suits can also stem from instances of death due to deliberate, criminal actions.
Automobile accidents are the most common reason for a victim’s family to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The family of a decedent may sue the driver or drivers whose negligent behavior (such as speeding or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol) caused the fatal accident.
However, a family may also sue the manufacturer of the vehicle that the victim was driving if the company failed to disclose issues with its products, such as faulty parts.
Other common defendants in driving-related wrongful death suits include commercial trucking companies, government agencies that are responsible for road maintenance, and government agencies that maintain vehicles, such as city buses. These entities can be found liable for accidents resulting in death, as can individuals they employ.
In addition to motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death suits frequently arise from cases of medical malpractice. A hospital or nursing home is liable for a wrongful death if its employees were negligent in caring for a patient, if the facility’s leadership demonstrated negligence in its hiring and supervising practices, or if the facility failed to properly maintain its equipment or follow standard medical protocol.
In some cases, a wrongful death victim’s family may choose to sue individual hospital employees, such as doctors or nurses, in addition to the hospital itself.
However, families often decide against taking such action, as doing so requires facing additional defense attorneys. A facility cannot be found liable for the negligent actions of physicians and other medical professionals it does not employ, even if these individuals were working on its premises when they failed to administer proper care to a patient. The estate of a wrongful death victim may sue these independent contractors instead of the facility in which the negligent treatment occurred.
The types of malpractice that often result in wrongful death lawsuits include:
Product liability cases are another common source of wrongful death suits. It is a manufacturer’s duty to ensure that its products are safe for the public to use. When a defective product causes a person’s death, the manufacturer is liable. Retailers, product distributors, and product designers can also be defendants in wrongful death lawsuits.
Families can file wrongful death suits against places of employment as well. Workplace fatalities may result from accidents on the job, such as falls, burns, or explosions.
However, an employer can also face a wrongful death lawsuit if a worker dies from long-term exposure to a harmful chemical that he or she encountered on the job site, such as asbestos. Construction companies, mining companies, and factories are some of the most likely employers to be on the receiving end of wrongful death lawsuits.
If someone dies as the result of a criminal act, including murder, the family of that person may file a wrongful death suit. The defendant does not need to have been found guilty in a criminal trial for the victim’s estate to initiate such a lawsuit.
Many Americans have become familiar with the concept of wrongful death lawsuits through the news. The following are examples of wrongful death cases that have made headlines across the United States:
High-profile cases like these have increased society’s understanding of wrongful death lawsuits. These cases have captured the public’s attention due to their sensational nature, but they have also educated the public as to what a wrongful death case is and how it differs from a criminal case. If not for such well-publicized cases, some members of the public might remain unaware that they can seek damages after the untimely loss of a family member.
Every state allows a decedent’s spouse and children to seek damages through a wrongful death suit. Some states allow a decedent’s parents, grandparents, and other relatives to recover damages as well.
Not every state allows these family members to file wrongful death suits on their own. In fact, a number of states require a “personal representative” or executor of the estate to file a wrongful death suit.
A personal representative may be named in the decedent’s will or be court-appointed. Personal representatives may be individuals or institutions, such as banks.
The following jurisdictions require a personal representative to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s family or estate:
Maryland is a state that uses distinct terminology for wrongful death cases. It defines both primary and secondary beneficiaries.
A primary beneficiary—the decedent’s spouse, children, or parents—may initiate a wrongful death case, a survival claim, or both. Secondary beneficiaries—such as the decedent’s siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins, and other members of the decedent’s extended family—may file a wrongful death or survival claim if there are no living primary beneficiaries or if no primary beneficiary is willing to pursue a case.
In Maryland, wrongful death claims are designed to compensate the deceased person’s family for the loss of wages, support, and companionship that follow an unexpected death. Survival claims are meant to compensate a decedent’s estate for expenses related to the death, including funeral and burial costs, the decedent’s medical costs, and the decedent’s pain and suffering.
This common question has no specific answer. The amount of money that a wrongful death victim’s family can claim varies depending on the case. The factors to consider include:
The families of decedents file wrongful death suits to recover “economic damages,” such as a decedent’s hospital bills and other medical costs or income that the decedent would have earned if he or she were still alive. Families also file wrongful death lawsuits to recover non-economic damages, such as their own loss of love or the decedent’s pain and suffering. Some states have established maximum amounts for the damages that families can seek.
The amount of money involved in wrongful death settlements varies greatly, but there have been many cases in which the amount was hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
A civil court cannot award any damages to a wrongful death victim’s family (“the plaintiff”) until the plaintiff has shown the court that the defendant acted negligently, and that this negligence caused the victim’s death. There are four “wrongful death elements” that the plaintiff must prove:
Criminal cases that involve death require “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” In these situations, the court must be convinced that the defendant is 100 percent responsible for the victim’s death and that the defendant intended to kill the victim.
In wrongful death cases, which are a civil matter, the burden of proof amounts to a “preponderance of evidence.” A plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit must convince the court that there is at least a 51 percent likelihood that the defendant is responsible for the victim’s death. Wrongful death cases do not require proof of intent.
Each state has established a time limit for a decedent’s family or personal representative to file a wrongful death suit. This period does not necessarily begin upon the person’s death; it can instead begin on the “date of discovery”—when a decedent’s family learns the cause of his or her death.
In most cases, the statute of limitations for wrongful death is two years. Maryland is one exception to this; its statute of limitations is three years. Maine has the longest wrongful death statute of limitations at six years.
If you have a loved one who has died due to negligence or misconduct, you can’t navigate the complexities of a wrongful death case alone. Consult a licensed wrongful death attorney with the experience to help you prove your case and reach the best possible outcome.
Thousands of people die each year in traffic accidents, sometimes immediately and sometimes after lingering for a lengthy period. These deaths cause considerable anguish for the surviving family members, despite the fact that they usually were not even involved in the fatal accident.
Maryland, like other states, has enacted a law that recognizes these losses and allows for them to be compensated in a wrongful death claim. This claim is related to, but distinct from, the right of the deceased victims to recover for the injuries prior to dying, and for the estate of the deceased to recover for the financial loss associated with the death in what the law calls a survival action. It can be confusing, since the relatives who file a wrongful death claim are, in fact, “survivors,” while the deceased’s claim is called a “survival” action when the victim did not, in fact, survive. The important thing, though, is that experienced accident lawyers know the difference, and understand who can bring what claims for which damages.
What matters is that someone’s death was “wrongfully” caused, so a wrongful death claim can follow fatal accidents of any kind: cars, trucks, boats, airplanes, pedestrians, electrocutions, drowning, slips-and-falls…any kind. It also doesn’t matter what the “legal ground” is; wrongful death claims are just as appropriate when the defendant’s liability is based on strict liability as when it’s based on negligence, and just as appropriate when it’s based on the defendant’s direct actions, like drinking and driving, as when it’s based on indirect actions like hiring a delivery driver with a known drunk driving history.
Maryland’s wrongful death statute (§ 3-904) recognizes two distinct classes of people who can file wrongful death claims:
For the most part, secondary beneficiaries can recover only if no primary beneficiary exists, or no primary beneficiary files a claim. The rules on how damages are divided among the beneficiaries can be very complex and dealing with them is definitely best left to an experienced Maryland wrongful death attorney.
The damages in a wrongful death claim are the amounts to compensate for what the relatives have lost themselves. This includes damages for both economic loss and non-economic loss. Economic damages include the financial support the deceased would have provided, as well as the value of the services the deceased would have provided (cooking, home maintenance, and the great many other things that relatives—especially spouses—do for each other). There is a great deal of subjectivity in determining exactly what those services would have been in any given case, and in assigning a value to them. The services of a truly experienced wrongful death attorney can be invaluable in obtaining these damages.
Non-economic damages are those intended to compensate for mental and emotional suffering, and the loss of the deceased’s role in the lives of the family members. The latter is a rather vague concept that is usually described in terms of “loss of affection” and “loss of companionship.”
The damages in a survival action are the amounts that the victim would have been entitled to recover but for the intervention of death. Damages are payable to the estate and then distributed according to the will or, if none, the intestacy laws. As in wrongful death claims, damages can include both economic and non-economic damages.
Typical economic damages in a survival action include:
The noneconomic damages are the pain and suffering the deceased experienced from the time of the accident until death.
There is no wrongful death recovery or survival action until you prove that the death was wrongful. To successfully handle wrongful death actions, your attorney needs to be experienced in establishing negligence in a wide variety of accident types, including medical malpractice. Once that’s done, the attorney needs to be intimately familiar with wrongful death and survival claims, including the complex rules on beneficiaries and allocating damages among the beneficiaries; not to mention the Maryland cap on “noneconomic” damages like pain and suffering.
Get the experienced help you need in dealing with the death of a loved one. Call the personal injury lawyer at the Law Offices of Randolph Rice today for compassionate and committed legal advocacy that is focused on getting results. There is no charge for the initial case evaluation and no fee until you recover. Call us at 410.288.2900