Wrongful Death - Overview
A "wrongful death" occurs when a person is killed due to the negligence or misconduct of another individual, company or entity. An action for wrongful death belongs to the decedent's immediate family members (often called "distributees"). The most common distributees are surviving spouses and children, and sometimes parents. A suit for wrongful death may only be brought by the personal representative of the decedent's estate. Every state has a civil "wrongful death statute," or set of statutes, which establish the procedures for bringing wrongful death actions. Actions for personal injury, conscious pain and suffering, or expenses incurred prior to the decedent's death are also brought by the personal representative. The damage awards from these actions belong to the estate and may pass to different parties as directed by the decedent's will.
Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
In order to bring a successful wrongful death cause of action, the following elements must be present:
A wrongful death claim may arise out of a number of circumstances, such as in the following situations:
Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Pecuniary, or financial, injury is the main measure of damages in a wrongful death action. Courts have interpreted "pecuniary injuries" as including the loss of support, services, lost prospect of inheritance, and medical and funeral expenses. Most laws provide that the damages awarded for a wrongful death shall be fair and just compensation for the pecuniary injuries that resulted from the decedent's death. If the distributees paid or are responsible for the decedent's funeral or medical care, they may also recover those expenses. Finally, a damage award will include interest from the date of the decedent's death.
Determining Pecuniary Loss
When determining pecuniary loss, it is relevant to consider the age, character and condition of the decedent, his/her earning capacity, life expectancy, health and intelligence, as well as the circumstances of the distributees. This determination may seem straightforward, but it often becomes a complicated inquiry, keeping in mind that the measure of damages is actual pecuniary loss. Usually, the main consideration in awarding damages is the decedent's circumstances at the time of death. For example, when an adult wage earner with dependants dies, the major parts of the recovery are: 1) loss of income, and 2) loss of parental guidance. The jury may consider the decedent's earnings at the time of death, the last known earnings if unemployed, and potential future earnings.
Adjustments in the Jury's Award
Punitive damages are awarded in cases of serious or malicious wrongdoing to punish the wrongdoer, or deter others from behaving similarly. In most states, a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages in a wrongful death action. There are some states, however, that have specific statutes that permit the recovery of punitive damages. In states that do not explicitly allow or disallow punitive damages in wrongful death actions, courts have held punitive damages permissible. An attorney will be able to advise you as to whether your state allows punitive damages.
Survival Actions for Personal Injury
In addition to damages for wrongful death, the distributees may be able to recover damages for personal injury to the decedent. These are called "survival actions," since the personal injury action survives the person who suffered the injury. The decedent's personal representative can bring such an action together with the wrongful death action, for the benefit of the decedent's estate.
In a survival action for a decedent's conscious pain and suffering, the jury may make several inquiries to determine the amount of damages, including: 1) the degree of consciousness; 2) severity of pain; and, 3) apprehension of impending death, along with the duration of such suffering.