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Wrongful Death Information Center

Wrongful Death - An Overview

Losing a loved one is painful. Losing a loved one due to wrongful death can be even more difficult. If someone's wrongful actions caused injuries that resulted in your loved one's death, that is a wrongful death. In common law, there was no legal action that surviving family members could take. That changed, however, when governments began to make laws protecting survivors. Now, in every state in the U.S., the representative or heirs of a person lost to wrongful death may file a lawsuit for monetary damages. The laws, however, vary quite a bit from state to state, so consulting with an attorney is advisable.

Monetary Damages for Wrongful Death

The main method courts have for measuring loss in wrongful death lawsuits is pecuniary damages — that is, the court must determine the proper compensation for the financial loss that the death has caused. Though this may seem harsh or cold, money damages are the remedy that civil courts have at their disposal. Thus, when the courts measure loss, the first thing most of them turn to is quantifiable data:

  • How much money did the deceased earn?
  • How much money did the deceased save?
  • How financially dependent were the survivors on the deceased?

The court will also take into consideration:

  • Funeral expenses
  • Medical expenses

The wrongful death lawsuit is meant to compensate certain surviving family members, not necessarily to punish the party responsible for the death. Punitive damages are available, however, in some states when the actions of the defendant were reckless or malicious.

Factors in Determining Economic Loss

Courts look at a number of elements to determine financial loss caused by a wrongful death lawsuit. Most of the considerations take into account characteristics of the person who has passed away:

  • Earning potential
  • Health
  • Life expectancy
  • Assets

Courts assess these factors when considering the financial dependence of the plaintiff on the deceased.

Some activities that might not seem economic at first glance can be characterized as such by the court. This is because it would cost money to have someone besides the deceased perform the activities. They include:

  • Child care
  • Housekeeping
  • Assistance with family members' medical or daily living needs

The plaintiff may wish to use expert testimony to establish the amount of loss.

Factors in Determining Emotional Loss

Not all of the emotional harm suffered by the plaintiff can be compensated by the court. Some aspects of what the decedent contributed to the family, however, are "calculated" by the court:

  • Parental guidance
  • Companionship
  • Affection

In making this determination, the court will look at the strength of the relationship between the plaintiff and the decedent. The weight the court gives this type of loss changes based on the particular state's laws.

Survival Actions

Some courts will allow the plaintiff to sue for injuries sustained by the person who died. This is called a "survival action" because the legal claim survives after the injured person's death. This claim could be presented at the same time as the wrongful death lawsuit. If this is allowed, the plaintiff may need to show that the injured person was aware of and emotionally affected by the injuries before passing away.

Speak to a Personal Injury Lawyer

Each state has a rule — a statute of limitations — about how long a plaintiff has to file a wrongful death claim. After that time has elapsed, it is too late to take legal action. It is therefore important to speak with an attorney promptly. Call today to schedule a consultation with a personal injury attorney to discuss your case.

Copyright © 2012 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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