If your loved one died in an accident due to no fault of their own, you may be wondering if you can bring a legal claim against other parties involved. Under civil law, you may be able to sue those parties for monetary compensation for your losses through a wrongful death claim.
Wrongful death damages are designed to compensate certain survivors for harms and losses — both tangible and otherwise — associated with the preventable death of a family member. If you believe that your loved one’s death was directly or indirectly caused by another person or entity’s negligence, you may be eligible to pursue this legal action.
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What Qualifies as Wrongful Death?
At its most basic, wrongful death is a legal term for any death caused by the negligent or intentionally harmful actions of another person or entity. When a wrongful death is suspected, the deceased individual’s relatives may be able to sue for damages related to their death. This can include economic damages, such as funeral costs, or non-economic damages, such as loss of companionship.
While there are many ways a wrongful death can occur, car accidents are one of the most common causes. In 2018, for instance, 33,654 people died in motor vehicle accidents. While it’s difficult to know how many of those fatalities were caused by another party’s negligence, there are some behaviors that are more likely to result in preventable traffic deaths:
- Drunk driving. Roughly a third of 2018 traffic fatalities involved drunk drivers.
- Speeding. In 2016, approximately 10,000 speeding-related deaths occurred.
- Distracted driving. There were 3,450 distracted-driving fatalities in 2016.
- Drowsy driving. 803 people died in 2016 in drowsy-driving accidents.
At least some of the individuals were killed in these accidents due to another driver’s negligent behavior.
What Damages Can Be Awarded in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
There are three categories of possible damages in wrongful death lawsuits: economic, non-economic, and punitive damages. Here’s how they differ:
- Economic damages. These damages can be assigned a specific dollar value. For instance, you might sue for funeral and burial costs and/or the estimated lifetime income the deceased would have provided to your household. In some cases, plaintiffs can also sue for services the deceased contributed to their household, such as home repairs or cleaning.
- Non-economic damages. A person’s life is worth a lot more than their financial contributions, of course. Non-economic damages compensate family members for intangible losses, such as the love, companionship, advice, moral support, and so on that the deceased would have provided should they have lived.
- Punitive damages. If the defendant demonstrated “gross negligence” — that is, extreme recklessness or disregard for the deceased’s safety — survivors may file a claim for punitive damages. This category of damages is designed to punish the defendant for their harmful behavior. For instance, punitive damages are frequently included in drunk driving cases.
Wrongful Death Claims vs. Survival Actions
In some states, the deceased’s estate may be able to claim survival damages in a separate survival action. Survival damages compensate the deceased for harms and losses they suffered from the point at which they were injured to when they died.
Common survival damages include:
- Pain and suffering
- Medical expenses
- Mental anguish
- Funeral and burial expenses (although compensation for these damages cannot be claimed in both a wrongful death case and a survival action)
Unlike a wrongful death claim, survival actions are brought forth by the administrator of the deceased’s estate rather than qualifying relatives — although the administrator and the wrongful death claimant can be the same person.
Who Qualifies for Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim?
The answer to this question varies from state to state; however, wrongful death claims are usually limited to spouses and close family members.
In Texas and Florida, surviving spouses, parents, and children can sue for wrongful death. In Texas, adopted children may also sue for damages. In Florida, adopted children cannot sue, but natural children under 25 are entitled to higher compensation.
How Do You Prove Wrongful Death?
You will only receive damages in a wrongful death claim if you can prove that the death was in fact “wrongful.” To do so, you and your wrongful death lawyer will need to prove the following:
- Duty of care. You will need to show that the defendant had a “duty of care” to the deceased. In a car accident, for instance, drivers have a duty to obey the rules of the road and behave in a way that you would expect any reasonable person to.
- Breach of duty of care. In a wrongful death case, you must be able to identify evidence showing that the defendant neglected or even willfully acted counter to their duty of care. That might include eye-witness statements attesting that the defendant was driving recklessly, police reports showing that the defendant’s blood alcohol level was over the legal limit, and any other allowable documentation that supports your case.
- Causation. In order to successfully prove your case for damages, you must be able to show that the defendant’s actions actually caused the deceased’s injuries/death. For instance, you might need to prove that the death wasn’t due to underlying medical conditions or some sort of negligence on the part of the deceased — or any other possible factor that might have caused the accident other than the defendant’s behavior.
Ultimately, you’ll be much more likely to successfully recover damages if you engage the services of a wrongful death lawyer. Because attorneys have experience gathering evidence and understand what is allowable under the law, they can create strategies to improve your chances of recovering compensation.
When you are grieving the death of a loved one, dealing with the loss and attending to final arrangements are challenging enough. It’s hard to imagine adding the legal work of a wrongful death case to that burden. But if your parent, child, or spouse died a preventable death at the hands of another, you deserve any form of relief available to you — along with the fullest measure of justice.
At FVF, we have been providing victims like you with reliable legal advice for years. We handle all cases with the utmost sympathy and compassion for our clients. If you feel that your loved one suffered a wrongful death, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. Together, we can discuss your options and help you decide how best to move forward.