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All About Wrongful Death, And How We Can Help

In the United States, wrongful death accounts for a shocking amount of deaths. There were 130,000 unintentional deaths in the US in 2013. Every year, about 90,000 deaths are attributed to some form of medical malpractice. On top of that, around 1 in 5 medical errors cause serious injury or death.

Are you curious about what wrongful death is, and how you can receive compensation after the wrongful death of a loved one? We have the answers you’re looking for.

What is Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death is a type of civil case in which one party files against another alleging legal responsibility for someone’s death.

Common causes include:

  • Neglect (personal or institutional)
  • Product defectiveness
  • Reckless action and endangerment
  • Intentional, criminal actions (like battery)

Different states have different procedures regarding wrongful death lawsuits, and as such, they regulate compensation potential, who can file these lawsuits, and the deadlines to do so, among other things.

Though it varies by state, generally those who are financially or otherwise dependent on the deceased individual may bring a wrongful death lawsuit against another party. Additionally, compensation is determined by state laws. Compensation usually fluctuates based on a number of factors. The most common factors are:

  • Funeral costs
  • Medical costs up until the individual died
  • Projected loss of emotional support the deceased would have provided
  • The projected loss of their financial support

The statute of limitations (how long an individual has to file a lawsuit before they are unable to do so) varies by state, though often this is about 2-3 years after the person’s death. However, there are notable exceptions to this time frame in some states. For instance, sometimes the statute of limitations is extended when the death involves alcohol, a public body such as a corporation, or product defectiveness and liability.

Wrongful Death vs. Criminal Cases

Wrongful death cases and trials for murder are different. Murder trials are brought about by the state, and if the individual is prosecuted, he/she will go to jail and potentially pay a fine. Wrongful death cases, on the other hand, are filed by an individual or by the estate of the deceased in civil court (as opposed to criminal court). The evidence needed to convict an individual of being guilty are also vastly different. In murder trials, an individual is assumed innocent, and the evidence must show beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed the crime. On the other hand, in wrongful death cases, it must only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence that they are guilty of causing death. In other words, it has to be more likely than not that they had a direct hand in their death. The penalties in civil court are monetary, meaning the defendant would not go to jail, and instead would pay the above fees, based on the factors.

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Wrongful Death Compensation

So, what kind of damages are usually awarded in a wrongful death suit? Though it varies case by case, it’s likely that this will depend on certain factors as listed above. These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to:

  • Death-related costs and expenses (such as funeral and medical costs)
  • Loss of consortium (or companionship)
  • Loss of deceased future earnings
  • Other costs for damages as a result of wrongful death (punitive damages)

Before the court orders that the defendant pay for any damages to those acting on behalf of the deceased, they must prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the death of the deceased. There are a few things that must be proven in a wrongful death case to be awarded a settlement.

Proving Wrongful Death

The first criterion to proving wrongful death is that the defendant was trusted with or accepted and displayed a duty of care for the deceased. This means that the defendant had an obligation, in some way, for the safety of the deceased. In the medical world, this means doctors doing everything in their power to cure the sick, and not wrongfully causing the deceased to die due to negligence. Failure to do so implies malpractice. In cases such as car accidents, this means the defendant had an obligation to follow the rules of the road and not cause an accident that would lead to someone’s death.

The breach of duty of care means that the defendant was negligent and caused the deceased to die by failing to follow the guidelines of duty of care. By this we mean that the duty of care was overlooked, violated, or disrupted in a way that caused the death of the deceased. In the medical world, that means giving an incorrect dosage or diagnosis, or a myriad of other mistakes during treatment. In the case of driving, this means the defendant broke the law by speeding, taking an illegal turn or maneuver, or otherwise doing something that violates traffic law, and resulted in the death of the deceased.

The third thing that often must be proven is causation. That is, how did the defendant’s actions directly cause the death of the deceased? If there is no direct action indicated, then it is difficult to win a wrongful death case. In the medical world, if the deceased was prescribed the wrong type of medication, but their death was the result of mechanisms out of their control, those who filed the lawsuit cannot prove causation. In the case of car accidents, if the defendant ran through a stop sign, but the crash was technically caused by the malfunctioning vehicle of the deceased, causation does not apply.

Burden of Proof

As stated above, to prove these three elements requires a certain degree of burden of proof. Unlike criminal cases, the burden of proof is much easier to attain in wrongful death cases, because they are civil suits. In many states, it is required that the accusers demonstrate that it is more than likely that the defendant caused the death of the deceased. In legal speak, the defendant must be found to have acted in a negligent manner by a preponderance of evidence. In criminal cases, defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and further must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal charges may also be brought against the defendant, though this usually happens before a wrongful death case is brought against the defendant. Similarly, a criminal case does not mean wrongful death cases can’t proceed following a criminal case. In fact, most wrongful death cases and other types of civil suits are filed after criminal proceedings conclude, or in lieu of criminal cases altogether. In other words, both criminal and civil suits can be brought against a defendant regardless of the verdict, though it’s worth remembering that civil suits can only result in monetary compensation, and not criminal penalties such as jail time.

Who Can File for Wrongful Death?

While criminal suits are often filed by the state, wrongful death suits can be brought against a defendant by those acting on behalf of the deceased. Most often those acting on behalf of the deceased had a close personal relationship with the deceased. A common list of people includes (but not limited to):

  • Spouses
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Designated heirs
  • Minors living with the deceased (who may or may not be related to the deceased).

Don't wait to File a Suit

Remember, the time to file a wrongful death suit can be fairly short-lived. In most states, the statute of limitations (window to file a suit) for wrongful death is just two years after death.

Has a loved one been killed because of negligence? We want to help. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you believe you have a case; time is an important factor. Interested in learning more? Get in touch with us so we can better evaluate and serve your needs in getting the justice your loved one deserves. You may very well be entitled to compensation.

Who Can You Trust with Your Case?

Navigating the world of medical law can be tricky; that’s why you need to go to the experts for help. Weltchek, Mallahan, & Weltchek is one of the top medical malpractice firms in the nation, and we didn’t earn that title overnight. If you’re considering a consultation and want to put your life back into your hands after a serious stroke, call us. You won’t be disappointed.

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