What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A wrongful death lawsuit is an action in which the plaintiff claims that a death resulted from the defendant failing to fulfill a legal duty. They are typically filed by surviving family members or representatives of the deceased's estate who are seeking financial compensation for someone's death. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove certain elements to receive compensation, including:

  • That a person or entity committed an intentional wrongful act or acted negligently.
  • That this person or entity's actions were the direct cause of death.
  • That damages were associated with this death.

Many situations constitute a wrongful death, and there are thousands of such cases each year. Some common causes of wrongful death include car accidents, medical malpractice, workplace fatalities, and unsafe premises. If a loved one experienced an untimely death as the result of someone else's actions or inactions, a family member or representative of the deceased may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Claimants should consider consulting an attorney to learn more about their options.

Critical things to understand about wrongful death lawsuits

Before a claimant seeks to file a wrongful death lawsuit, they should understand several fundamental matters about how these lawsuits work. Wrongful death lawsuits are civil actions to obtain financial compensation. This compensation may cover medical costs, the loss of a loved one's income, and the anguish of losing them.

In many situations where a death occurs, the state may also file criminal charges. The purpose of a criminal charge is to punish the perpetrator for violating a law rather than deliver financial compensation. It is important to be aware of the distinction, as civil and criminal cases have different requirements for the standard of proof.

In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. For civil cases, however, the plaintiff needs to prove the case by a preponderance of the evidence. This is a lower threshold and is why it is common for some defendants to be found not guilty in criminal trials but liable in civil ones.

With a wrongful death lawsuit, plaintiffs can sue practically any individual or entity that caused the wrongful death. Some common examples of those who may be sued include:

  • Drivers who cause a car accident.
  • Medical professionals who commit malpractice.
  • Companies that do not adequately warn customers about the dangers of their products.
  • Companies that design or manufacture a defective product.
  • A company or individual that provides alcohol to a driver that causes a fatal accident.
  • A government agency that does not warn about dangerous road conditions.
  • An employer who causes death through unsafe working conditions.

Some recent wrongful death lawsuits include talcum powder lawsuits, asbestos lawsuits, and toxic baby formula lawsuits.

The impact of a wrongful death claim

A wrongful death significantly impacts the victim's family and friends. Those who knew the deceased go through a mourning process and experience grief due to the untimely death of their loved one. Additionally, some people may suffer a significant financial loss if they relied on the deceased's income.

The impact of a wrongful death claim does not end there. To receive financial compensation, the deceased's loved ones must enter a lengthy legal process. This can prevent closure and be emotionally trying, as those close to the deceased may need to relive the details of the incident for many months. With the emotional distress of losing a loved one, the potentially severe financial losses, and the stress of dealing with wrongful death litigation, it is clear that a wrongful death claim can have a significant impact on those involved.

Adverse events associated with wrongful death

The primary adverse event associated with this type of claim is the death of the victim. This is a person who would otherwise be alive if it were not for the actions of the liable party. Other adverse events can also arise from wrongful death, such as:

  • Emotional stress or trauma.
  • Medical bills.
  • Legal fees.
  • Loss of wages.
  • Depression.

When negotiating financial compensation with liable parties, the claimant's lawyer will consider any additional adverse events they experienced as a result of the wrongful death.

Following an incident: Steps to take

If someone believes a person they know was the victim of a wrongful death, they must take the right steps after the incident. Those steps include:

Find an attorney

The first step is to find a wrongful death attorney. A good attorney knows how to properly pursue a wrongful death claim and can guide clients through each of the remaining steps. It can be challenging for a claimant to file a wrongful death lawsuit on their own, and they are less likely to return a desirable outcome. Alternatively, with the assistance of a trustworthy attorney, the process becomes much less burdensome.

Investigate the death

The next step involves both the claimant and their attorney further investigating the wrongful death. During this step, the claimant needs to gather as much information as possible regarding the cause of their loved one's premature death. For example, if they died due to medical negligence, the evidence claimants should collect would include medical records, witness statements, and medical device receipts. If they died in a car accident, the claimant's lawyer would help them collect police reports or surveillance camera footage. The main purpose of this step is to learn exactly what caused the premature death, using all possible information.

Determine liability

The next step involves determining liability. This is the person, persons, or entity that is directly responsible for the wrongful death. In a medical malpractice case, this could be the doctor who provided treatment or the healthcare facility where the deceased was staying. If they died as a result of a faulty product, the liable party could be the manufacturer or the retailer, depending on the situation. The claimant's lawyer will review the facts uncovered during the investigation and determine who the liable parties are.

Begin settlement discussions

In most cases, before filing a lawsuit, the claimant's lawyer will attempt to negotiate a settlement with the liable party. The claimant and their lawyer will work together to determine the value of the case, after which the lawyer will send a demand letter to the liable party or their insurer. From here, lengthy negotiations may arise, during which the claimant's lawyer will attempt to secure the highest possible financial compensation.

Bring the case to trial

If the parties are unable to settle, the case will then proceed to trial. Going to trial will allow the claimant's lawyer to use discovery to gather more evidence about the case. Once the case reaches trial, legal argument on the claimant's behalf will attempt to convince a judge or a jury that the claimant should be awarded a certain amount of financial compensation. During this time, the claimant's lawyer may also participate in mediation sessions or further settlement discussions to expedite the process. After the case, the claimant will hopefully receive adequate financial compensation for the loss of their loved one.

Decisions regarding liability

When filing a wrongful death lawsuit, the claimant and their attorney need to decide who is liable. This is the person, persons, or entity that had some responsibility for the death of the claimant's loved one. Who is liable will depend on the specifics of the situation. For example, if they died due to a faulty product, the claimant would need to learn who caused the defective product. Did the manufacturer make a mistake when creating the product, or did the retailer somehow alter the product, making it unsafe?

Similarly, if they died as a result of medical malpractice, the claimant would need to learn who is at fault. Did the doctor fail to order a certain laboratory test, or did a surgeon make a mistake while operating? Many people can be deemed liable in wrongful death claims, which is why it is advisable to work with a lawyer who can help identify the correct person or entity.