First things first: a wrongful death suit is filed when someone dies due to the negligence, mistake, omission, error, or similar act of a third party. Typically, wrongful death suits are brought in the case of car accidents, death of a worker on the job, and due to a defect in a product, like tires that blow out or spinach with E Coli.
The sole purpose of the wrongful death claim is to compensate the immediate survivors for their loss through damages. These can include loss of earnings, which can be especially high when someone dies young, medical costs, funeral costs, and damages for loss of the company of the individual.
The suit is filed against the person, people, or entity that the relatives of the decedent believe caused the death of their loved one. This is where things get tricky. To start, the wrongful death claim must allege that the defendant caused the death of the person and that because of the death, the survivors have incurred damages. It may sound fairly straightforward, but it’s not.
First, the relatives must investigate and determine who was responsible for the death. In the case of a car accident, the obvious choice might be the other driver, but it is also possible that due to some manufacturing defect, either on the decedent’s car or the other car, an accident turned into a fatality. In a workplace death, while the deceased may have been killed by falling debris which the company failed to have a safety plan in place to avoid, maybe a third party contractor did left the debris the day before and failed to secure it. It is never as simple as it seems.
Second, the family must be able to prove that because of the death that was caused by the defendant(s), they have incurred damages. This can be surprisingly difficult. For example, a claim for loss of earnings may be circumvented by the defense showing that even if the decedent had lived, their earning potential was small and inconsequential.
Another problem can rear its ugly head if the relatives who are suing are not in fact relatives. If the marriage of the decedent and the surviving “spouse” was actually invalid because the decedent never divorced their first spouse, the surviving “spouse” may not be the individual filing the suit. Similarly, there could be ancillary claims of paternity from children not of the marriage who may come calling to be added to the suit.
Then there is the issue of how to quantify the loss of the relatives. Medical bills and funeral expenses are easily documented and loss of earnings is relatively easy to quantify by an actuary. Putting a price on loss of companionship is much harder.
Finally, there is a sense of urgency that will hang over the filing of the suit as wrongful death claims can only be brought within a limited amount of time after the death. The amount of time varies from state to state, but each has a statute of limitations after which no further claims can be filed.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from the Law Office of Eric H. Luckman, P.A., for their insight into wrongful death.