Wrongful Death Legal Information
Wrongful death lawyers specialize in seeking justice for those who’ve lost a loved one because of someone else’s careless or illegal actions. A wrongful death claim is much like a personal injury claim, except that the immediate family of the injured person must bring the claim. In this way, they can hold the person or organization responsible for the injury legally liable, even though that injury caused the death of the person who was directly affected. A wrongful death claim can also help ease the personal and financial burdens of those left behind after a wrongful death.
Any behavior that could be the basis for a personal injury lawsuit can also form the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit. Some common causes of wrongful death lawsuits include:
Car, truck and motorcycle accidents.
Workplace and construction accidents.
Exposure to toxic chemicals.
Legally speaking, a wrongful death is a death that was caused by some breach of the law. It’s most often due to negligence -- a type of breach of a civil duty. Each of us has a duty to take reasonable care in doing things that might affect our fellow citizens. For example, when driving, we have a duty to take reasonable care behind the wheel. Failing in that duty is called negligence by the law.
Wrongful deaths may also be caused by behavior that’s not negligent, but is illegal, wrongful, willful or reckless. For example, the manufacturer of a food item that caused food poisoning may have taken reasonable care. But because the law holds makers of consumer products to higher standards, any death from that food poisoning could still be considered a wrongful death. Intentional criminal behavior can also result in a wrongful death.
The primary difference is that a murder case is criminal, while a wrongful death case is civil. A murder case is brought by the state, not the victims, and seeks to keep society safe. If the defendant loses a murder case, he or she will most likely go to prison.
By contrast, a wrongful death case is a civil lawsuit. In a wrongful death case, you’re seeking to redress a breach of the legal duty that the defendant owed to you -- not to society as a whole. You’re still seeking to hold him or her responsible for the death, but if you win the lawsuit, you will win money intended to compensate you for the effects of the death. Civil cases are considered easier to win than criminal cases. You may file a civil case in addition to any criminal case that your state is pursuing.
The most famous example of the difference between the two is the O.J. Simpson matter. Simpson was found not guilty of the criminal charges against him, but lost the civil trial filed against him by the family of an alleged victim.
Which family members may file a lawsuit varies a little from state to state. But in all states, immediate family members such as spouses, minor children and parents may bring a wrongful death lawsuit.
In some states, that definition is broadened to account for non-traditional family situations. For example, children may bring a wrongful-death lawsuit over the deaths of grandparents or others who acted as parents or guardians. Adult children, separated spouses, grandchildren and domestic partners have claims in some, but not all, states. Any financial dependent, regardless of relationship, may have a claim in some states. And some states allow immediate heirs or the administrator of an estate, regardless of relationship, to bring a lawsuit. If you’re not sure what the law says in your state, a wrongful death lawyer can help.
This question most often comes up in the context of the wrongful death of a child or a retired person. Wrongful death laws were designed in part to compensate the family of a wrongfully killed breadwinner. For that reason, a minority of states do not allow non-economic damages -- payment for losses that aren’t financial -- in wrongful death lawsuits. In those states, you may still file a lawsuit, but you are unlikely to win much money unless the deceased person was working at the time of death. Unfortunately, this also means that many wrongful death lawyers will turn down those cases, believing they will not be able to make a living by suing for such small amounts. Luckily, most states now allow non-economic damages in wrongful deaths.
If the deceased was an adult who could have had a job at the time of death, but was unemployed or a homemaker, relatives have a better chance of recovering significant damages. This is true even if the deceased had never held a job. In those cases, wrongful death lawyers can estimate the loss of wages the decedent was likely to earn in the future, or the cost of replacing the services a homemaker performs.
The majority of U.S. states now have laws allowing family members to file wrongful death lawsuits over the death of a fetus (except those caused by consensual abortion). Some of these laws only apply to fetuses that would have been viable if they had been born before their deaths. In the remaining states, a baby must be born alive to give parents this legal right.
Wrongful death lawyers know that money can never bring back a loved one who was snatched away too soon. For that reason, it might be hard at first to see the benefit of filing a wrongful death lawsuit. But many families have practical needs to consider after the loss of a loved one. Funerals can be extremely expensive. Medical and repair bills related to the death can also be steep. If the deceased person was a breadwinner, his or her family may be scrambling to cover bills and simply make ends meet. A wrongful death lawsuit is designed to help people sent into financial crisis by an unexpected death.
In some cases, a wrongful death lawsuit can also help survivors expose wrongdoing or get justice for a loved one who was wronged. Sometimes, law enforcement declines to charge, or cannot charge, the people responsible for the death with any crime. If that’s the case, a wrongful death lawsuit may be the best way to pursue the case. A wrongful death lawyer can explain your legal options and help you decide what’s best in your case.
Wrongful death lawyers are usually also personal injury lawyers. And like personal injury lawyers, they almost always work for a special type of fee called contingency fees. Contingency fees are never due at the beginning of the case, or during the case. Instead, the wrongful death lawyer will ask for the fees at the end, after you win your case and secure a financial settlement or verdict. If you do not win your case, the wrongful death lawyer does not get any fee at all. If you do win, the fee is a percentage of your winnings. In rare cases, the wrongful death lawyer will be able to ask the court for attorneys’ fees that are separate from the verdict or settlement due to you. In this way, wrongful death lawyers are able to represent everyone who has a good case -- not just those who have the money to pay high hourly rates.