How a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Works

Even if you know very little about the legal system, you’ve likely heard the phrase “wrongful death” or “wrongful death lawsuit.” Wrongful death lawyers specialize in making sure those who have experienced the painful loss of the death of a loved one due to someone else’s carelessness can find peace after the incident. This may come in the form of financial support for things like medical bills, lost wages, or funeral expenses, among other possibilities. 

So what exactly is a wrongful death lawsuit? Read on to find out more about this specific kind of legal case.

Terminology Used in Wrongful Death Lawsuits: A Quick Guide

These terms and their definitions may help you understand this article more thoroughly:

Negligence: Failure to behave with an amount of care or consideration that the ordinary person should exercise in any given situation.

Duty of care: The responsibility of a person to act in a manner that is not negligent.

Malpractice: Misconduct by a professional in the medical, legal, or financial industries that results in harm done to a patient or client.

Damage: The amount of financial compensation a plaintiff is entitled to due to an incident, whether due to financial loss that needs to be corrected or due to assessing fines against the defendant(s).

  • Compensatory damages refers to amounts which can be assessed by the jury to fully and fairly compensate someone for their losses caused by the defendant. These can include such things as vehicle repair costs, lost wages, medical bills, hospital bills, medicine, pain and suffering, emotional distress and damage, and the like.  Some of those things are easy to calculate, such as vehicle repair costs and medical bills, while others, such as pain and suffering, involve more thought and opinion.
  • Punitive damages refers to an amount which can be assessed by a jury due to the defendant’s outrageous conduct or disregard of the rights of others.  They are called “punitive” because they are intended to punish and make an example of them so as to deter the defendant (and others) from similar conduct.

Burden of proof: The responsibility of a person to prove or verify a claim or assertion that they have made.  The defense also has to meet the burden of proof for any excuses that they try to use as a defense.

Personal representative: A person hired to represent the deceased person’s estate or stand in for family members as needed.  Sometimes called an “executor” of an estate.

What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A wrongful death lawsuit, also called a wrongful death case, is a specific type of lawsuit filed against someone who has caused another person’s death through negligence or by intentional action. In a situation such as a tragedy caused by medical malpractice, surviving family members may file a wrongful death claim against a nurse, doctor, or hospital who was caring for the deceased person. A wrongful death case can be filed against one single person, multiple people, a workplace, a company, or any other entity that can represent themselves in court.

Because this type of lawsuit happens in civil court, it is not considered a criminal case. However, especially when hearing about controversial celebrity court cases involving homicide, you may notice the phrase “wrongful death lawsuit” being used during trial proceedings. This is because sometimes, people who are on trial for homicide in criminal court are also sued in civil court by the loved ones of the homicide victim(s). Civil and criminal cases proceed independently of each other, and a ruling in one may not necessarily affect another.  That’s because the burden of proof is different in a criminal case.  A famous example is how O.J. Simpson won his murder trial, but lost the wrongful death suit filed by the families against him.

Requirements for Proving Wrongful Death

While accidental deaths are tragic and happen all too frequently, not all accidental deaths qualify as wrongful deaths under the law. In order to file a wrongful death lawsuit, the surviving family members (or their personal representative) and their attorney must provide proof that the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased person and either was negligent or intentionally breached that duty of care. In addition, the burden of proof for damages falls on the plaintiff, so they will need to provide evidence of what they have lost because of the death.  The obvious things are things like lost wages, vehicle damage, and medical bills. But wrongful death claims also allow the survivors to recover for less obvious things they have lost.  For example, Missouri law says that the surviving family members are entitled to recover “the reasonable value of the services, consortium, companionship, comfort, instruction, guidance, counsel, training, and support” of the deceased family member.  (Section 537.090)

State-Based Specifications

It is important to know that wrongful death case law differs based on your state. In order to ensure you can proceed with your case, be sure to hire an attorney who understands the specifics of wrongful death cases where you live — and where the incident occurred. For instance, if the deceased person was from Missouri and you are seeking to file a wrongful death claim related to a car accident that happened in the same state, you’re best off speaking with a Springfield, MO, auto accident attorney

Who Can File?

Who in the deceased person’s life is allowed to file a wrongful death claim? It’s a simple question with a complex answer which is also state-based. In some states, a personal representative must file the claim; in others, only family members are allowed to, and in yet others, family, friends, and personal representatives are all eligible to file a wrongful death claim.

In Missouri, a personal representative is not required to file a wrongful death claim. The claim can be filed by the spouse, children, or parents of the deceased. If there are no surviving family members that fit this description, the deceased person’s sibling (or the sibling’s children) may file the claim.

Punitive and Compensatory Damages

State law also dictates whether punitive, compensatory, or both kinds of damage can be recovered by the family as a result of the wrongful death. Missouri specifically dictates that while there are no limits on punitive versus compensatory damage, the court must first approve the settlement, then has the final say in how the damages are split (between punitive and compensatory). 

Typical Causes of Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Below are a few common reasons someone may file a wrongful death lawsuit:

  • Their family member or spouse was in a fatal vehicle collision caused by another driver’s negligence or malevolence. 
  • Their family member or spouse was killed in a workplace incident or accident.
  • Their family member or spouse was killed in a shooting, stabbing, or other act of violence.
  • Their family member or spouse died as a result of abuse, negligence, or mistreatment at a care facility, educational facility, or other institution.
  • Their family member or spouse suffered death due to a faulty product caused by the manufacturer, distributor, or company in charge of production or oversight. 
  • Their family member or spouse was a victim of medical malpractice.

Get Justice With Curran Law Firm

If your loved one has died as a result of a wrongful death situation, it can be difficult to know what you should do next. Processing your shock, anger, and grief is hard enough. You shouldn’t have to worry about carrying the financial burdens that can fall on your shoulders after a tragedy strikes. Make sure you get the justice that you are entitled to by contacting Curran Law Firm for a completely free case evaluation. Your attorney will devote time, compassion, and expertise to making sure you can move forward with your life — guaranteed. Get in touch with Curran Law Firm to learn more or speak with a legal expert today.