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.
What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
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. When a spouse or parent who was the primary earner for the household dies, the financial burden can be tremendous. Replacing lost earnings can seem impossible and might result in the rest of the family losing their house or having to file for bankruptcy.
For this reason, people sometimes decide to open a wrongful death claim to seek compensation for the lost financial earnings of their deceased loved one. A wrongful death claim occurs when an individual takes a civil action against another individual or company in order to seek compensation for a death of a family member.
There are many different situations that can be classified as a wrongful death. Some of the most common scenarios in a wrongful death case include:
- A car or truck accident
- A dangerous product
- Bike accidents
- Equipment malfunctioning
- Dog bites and other animal attacks
- Medical negligence and over site
- Slip and fall accidents due to dangerous conditions on a property
- Pedestrian accidents
You may not know from the onset if the death of a loved one was caused by the negligence of another individual. That is why you want to contact a wrongful death attorney to discuss your matter and determine if a civil claim can be filed on your behalf.
The experienced lawyers with the Randolph Rice injury law firm have represented hundreds of families and individuals after an accident. We represent wives, husbands, parents, and children of deceased individuals receive the compensation the family deserves after a death. We also represent individuals that were “substantially dependent” upon the deceased after an accident that results in death.
Wrongful Death Laws in Baltimore, MD
Accidents happen and when someone you care about dies from a wrongful death, it’s important to understand the laws that are set up to protect the family members who have been left behind. The Maryland Code of courts specifies the definition of wrongful death claim in Title 3, Subtitle 9 of the Maryland State Law Library. In this section, we see that a “wrongful act” is defined as an act that was negligent, felonious, an action, or default that caused a death.
Further, Code Section 3-902 shows that legal action can be brought against a person whose negligent or wrongful action causes another person’s death. Once a wrongful death claim is made, the viability of that claim must be assessed. The actions and testimony of the defendant will be considered to decide if the defendant could have done more to prevent the death. If the defendant is found to have violated the law in any way, or if they breached other legal obligation (for example if they failed to provide or seek immediate medical treatment) there is a good chance that the defendant will be liable for the wrongful death.
How to File a Wrongful Death Claim
If you plan to open a claim for a wrongful death, it is important to understand that there is a time limit on when you can make that claim. Maryland law states that a claim requesting damages for a wrongful death needs to be filed within three years from the date of the death. This is stated more clearly in the article for Code Section 5-101 in the general assembly of Maryland.
There are also restrictions on who can open this type of claim. According to Code Section 3-904, only close relatives of the deceased may request damages for a wrongful death. Specifically, children and spouses are the primary claimants for any compensation due in a wrongful death suit.
If there is no spouse or children who can qualify to file a claim for a wrongful death the secondary beneficiaries can attempt to pursue legal action. Secondary beneficiaries can be any person related to the deceased victim who heavily relied on the victim for financial support.
Still, there are limits. For example, in the death of a child, a parent generally can’t file a wrongful death claim against the other parent. An experienced Baltimore wrongful death lawyer can help you sort through the nuances of this type of claim, and will work to get the compensation that you deserve.
Should You Hire a Lawyer for Wrongful Death in Baltimore?
Dealing with a claim after someone who you care about has died can feel like an overwhelming burden. When you’re going through the process of grieving, little else seems to matter. For this reason, hiring an attorney who understands the ins and outs of the wrongful death claims process might be the best decision you can make.
Regardless of if you plan to sue a company or an individual, wrongful death cases can become complicated. If you decide to go down this route, you want to make sure that you use all of the best tools and resources available in order to ensure the best possible outcome.
Talk to the attorneys at The Law Office of Randolph Rice to better understand the process of pursuing a wrongful death claim. A lawyer can help show that a wrongful action, negligence, lack of care, or any other failure to complete a legal obligation led to the cause of death.
Initiating a Wrongful Death Claim in Baltimore
The first step in initiating a wrongful death claim is the set up an initial consultation with your legal team to discuss the details of your case. In Maryland, many of the wrongful death claims are settled without going to trial in front of a jury. Many times a settlement can be reached between two parties without the additional time and expense of going to court.
If in fact, your case does actually go to court, your lawyer will be tasked with the responsibility to show that the defendant(s) caused the death and that you are owed damages for this wrongful death. In order to prove this, your lawyer will talk to you about the case and will put together evidence to show the jury that there was a wrongful cause of death.
Although the burden to prove a wrongful death is with the prosecution, there are some factors that will help your case. The laws in Maryland are set up to protect victims from negligence.
Therefore, if a victim can prove that the injury that caused the wrongful death was a result of negligence (for example, a faulty piece of safety equipment, or a drunk driver) they have a strong case. When negligence is determined as the cause of death, the victim is oftentimes entitled to receive compensation from the at-fault party.
Common Reasons that a Family Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
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.
Medical Malpractice and Wrongful Death Claims
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:
- Improper administration of anesthesia
- Failure to prescribe the correct medication or to administer the proper dosage to the patient
- Errors during surgical procedures
- Birth injuries
- Neglect or abuse
- Delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis of an illness
- Use of defective equipment
Product Liability and Wrongful Death Lawsuits
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.
Deaths in the Workplace
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.
Wrongful Death and Criminal Charges
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.
Famous Examples of Wrongful Death
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:
- In 1995, former football player O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. In 1997, however, a civil jury found him liable for the deaths. Goldman’s family was awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
- In the 1970s, the Pinto subcompact was a top-seller for Ford Motor Company. However, there was a serious flaw in its design. The gas cap was located at the back of the vehicle, making the car susceptible to catching on fire in rear-end collisions. Numerous drivers and passengers died as a result of this issue. Ford eventually issued a recall for the Pinto, but the company was found liable in multiple wrongful death cases. During one trial, a memo surfaced that proved that Ford had been aware of the hazard associated with the Pinto and refused to make changes to the car’s design. The company’s executives had decided that it would be more cost-effective to pay damages in wrongful death lawsuits than it would be to spend an additional $11 per vehicle and manufacture a safer Pinto.
- In 2006, the family of Melinda Duckett filed a wrongful death suit against television host Nancy Grace. Duckett committed suicide after appearing on Grace’s show to discuss the disappearance of her son, and her family claimed that the toughness of Grace’s questions caused Duckett to take her own life. The family later dismissed the lawsuit and agreed to a settlement.
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.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Baltimore?
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.
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.
How Much Can You Sue for Wrongful Death?
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 person’s age and overall health at the time of his or her death
- The severity of the negligence or misconduct that resulted in the person’s death
- The amount of medical bills that the person incurred between the date of his or her injury and the date of his or her death
- The severity of the person’s pain and suffering before his or her ultimate death
- Whether the person was a high earner, particularly if he or she had dependents to support
- The person’s character
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.
Damages in Wrongful Death Claims
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.”
Damages in Survival Actions
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:
- Medical costs incurred from the accident until death
- The amount of wages lost from the accident until death
- Expenses of the funeral
The non-economic damages are the pain and suffering the deceased experienced from the time of the accident until death.
How Do You Prove Wrongful Death?
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:
Duty of Care
The defendant must have owed the deceased individual a “duty of due care.” This essentially means that the defendant was obligated to ensure the safety of the deceased person, or to refrain from taking actions that could harm the deceased person. In the case of a fatal traffic accident, the plaintiff would argue that the defendant’s duty to the decedent was to drive vigilantly.
Breach of Duty
The plaintiff must prove that the defendant failed to fulfill his or her duty as stated above. For example, the plaintiff could present evidence that the defendant was looking at his or her cell phone at the time of the accident. This is not something that a vigilant driver would do. Therefore, the defendant breached his or her duty of due care.
The defendant’s breach of duty must have actually caused fatal harm to the decedent. For example, another driver could have crashed into the victim’s vehicle and caused the victim’s fatal injuries before the defendant reached the scene and struck the decedent’s car. In this case, the jury would be unlikely to find the defendant liable for the victim’s death. However, the defendant would likely be liable if another driver had initially wounded the victim, but the defendant caused additional injuries to the victim that were the reason for his or her death.
Lastly, a plaintiff who has proven the first three wrongful death elements must prove the existence of damages. Most damages fall into the economic or non-economic categories discussed above, but some states allow families to seek punitive damages as well. These damages are meant to punish the liable party for particularly egregious negligence or misconduct.
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.
Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations
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.
Do You Have a Wrongful Death Case?
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.
The Type of Accident and Wrongdoing Doesn’t Matter
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.
Getting Help when You’ve Lost a Loved One
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.
Contact Our Baltimore Wrongful Death Attorneys Today
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.
Get the experienced help you need in dealing with the death of a loved one. Call the personal injury lawyer at Rice, Murtha & Psoras 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) 694-7291.