Q. Who may file a wrongful death claim?
A. Generally speaking, a surviving spouse, child and/or parent can sue for wrongful death of a loved one. Each state has established specific rules on who may file a claim.
Q. How soon after the death does the claim have to be filed?
A. The statute of limitations in the state where the death occurred establishes the final date on which the case must be filed. However, filing requirements are different in certain specific situations. For example, the time allowed is dramatically shorter if governmental agencies are being sued.
Q. How important is it to talk to an attorney?
A. Because the laws governing wrongful death are complicated and confusing, it is extremely important to work with a law firm that understands not only the basic law, but also explores the many avenues of potential recovery possible in your case.
Q. What does a wrongful death lawsuit involve?
A. A wrongful death lawsuit alleges that the deceased was killed as a result of negligence, neglect or wrongful action of the defendant and that the surviving dependents or beneficiaries are entitled to monetary damages as a result of the defendant’s conduct.
Q. What kind of damages may a relative sue for in a wrongful death case?
A. There are three types of damages available to survivors in a wrongful death lawsuit. There are the economic damages which are based on the case your attorney makes for the financial losses and loss of services suffered because of the death of this individual. There are also non-economic losses that include the loss of love, companionship, affection and nurturing. A third type of compensation–punitive damages– are sometimes awarded to the survivors in cases where the court or jury wants to further punish the defendant for intentional and, in some instances, extremely outrageous, willful and wanton conduct, and send a message to others that this should never happen again.
Q. How do judges and juries determine the value of economic loss?
A. Economic loss is based on the facts brought forward to determine what burial, funeral and medical expenses resulted from the death and what the deceased would have earned or accumulated had he/she lived a normal life span. This is often a very complex calculation. The courts take into consideration the age of the deceased, the condition of the deceased’s health prior to the accident, his/her earning capacity and prospects for earning at the time of death. They will try to determine what kind of assistance and services he/she would have rendered to the family, the age and needs of the children and many other factors including the wealth he/she might have accumulated during a normal life span. It is important for the survivors’ lawyer to make the case—often with the help of expert witnesses—on verifiable economic losses to the family.
Q. How do judges and juries determine the value of a non-economic loss?
A. The personal losses suffered after a wrongful death incident are incalculable, yet the courts seek to determine a sum that would compensate the family for their tragic loss. It requires legal skill and effort to help the court understand the desolation that follows a wrongful death. There are many variables in how these damages are determined, and it is important that your attorney make a solid case for the all the non-economic losses suffered—your loss of companionship, nurturing, love and affection, in addition to the emotional stress, pain and suffering, mental stress and inconvenience experienced.
Q. Are there different considerations in cases involving the death of a child?
A. In the case of a child’s death, your attorney will draw on all the means available to show the court what this death means to the family in terms of loss of companionship, love and affection.
Q. What is the difference between the civil and criminal cases that can be brought regarding the death?
A. Even if the party at fault could not be convicted in criminal court, the standards for proof are different in civil court—where wrongful death actions are filed. A good example is the O.J. Simpson case where on Oct. 3, 1995, Simpson was exonerated in a criminal trial charging him with the murder of his wife and her friend. He was later sued by the victims’ families in civil court where on February 4, 1997, the court awarded the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman $33.5 million.
Q. Can I bring a wrongful death action if the deceased never held a job—for example a stay-at-home mother?
A. Yes. The “value” of the deceased in terms of damages in a wrongful death case is determined using economic and non-economic measures. When a caregiver dies, the family suffers a loss of service, which can be quantified in economic terms because they now may have to pay to replace those services. There is also the great non-economic loss of the love, nurturing, affection and companionship.
Q. How long does it take to settle a wrongful death case?
A. It is not easy to predict how long it will take because many factors come into play. We can say, however, that our firm treats wrongful death lawsuits as a top priority and pushes them along as promptly as humanly possible so that you are able to recover your losses and move ahead with your life.