While each state has its own laws for handling wrongful death cases, the process typically involves filing a wrongful death claim, investigating the case, and settling on an award amount. Laws as to who can pursue legal action in a wrongful death case and how long a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit vary by state, but a lawyer can help you determine how wrongful death claims work where you live and assist you in seeking compensation if you qualify.
Plaintiffs can file wrongful death claims for cases in which a loved one lost their life as the result of another person’s negligence or unlawful behavior. These types of cases include:
- Car accidents
- Medical malpractice
- Products liability
- Premises liability
- Workplace falls and injuries
- Nursing home abuse
While most wrongful death cases occur due to someone’s negligence, an individual may also file a claim or lawsuit if their loved one suffered fatal injuries because of an intentional act, such as a homicide.
Each State Has Its Own Statutes for Wrongful Death Lawsuits
States carry their own statutes of limitations on wrongful death lawsuits, which determine how long an individual has to file their action in civil court. In cases involving two private parties, states allow a minimum of one year to seek compensation, although some have longer limits. However, when the statute of limitations begins also varies by state. In many cases, the clock starts on the day of the decedent’s death. Some cases, such as terminal illness, may lead to exceptions. An attorney can determine how long you have to file a wrongful death lawsuit in your state, but it is usually recommended that a person file as soon as possible to avoid potential delays.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
If the decedent had a spouse, the spouse would likely qualify to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Although states determine who can and cannot file, most allow either family members or the executor of the decedent’s state to do so, and spouses typically qualify as both. If the decedent did not have a spouse or a will, the applicable state has a process for determining the next person in line.
Some states do not have a system in place for determining who qualifies to file a wrongful death lawsuit and simply open it up to all family members and even unrelated dependents. In these cases, those who file might become part of a pool of plaintiffs, and the judge may consolidate their cases into a single lawsuit.
Who Benefits from a Wrongful Death Settlement
The parties that can benefit from the settlement also depend on how a wrongful death claim or lawsuit works in your state. Potential distribution outcomes may include:
- The court distributing the settlement according to the decedent’s will
- The court deciding who receives compensation and how much they receive
- The family deciding amongst themselves
- Family members each receiving compensation in proportion to their damages
- The court approving settlement decisions
- The court making a decision if survivors cannot agree on one
A lawyer can help you determine how the filing and distribution process works in your case.
The Process Typically Begins with an Investigation
To move forward with a wrongful death lawsuit, a lawyer can help the plaintiff investigate all the circumstances of their case. This will allow the lawyer to determine if the basis for a wrongful death claim exists, evaluate the plaintiff’s damages, and decide on a fair amount of compensation to seek on the plaintiff’s behalf.
Typically, attorneys will first consider the income of the decedent at their time of death and average work-life expectancies. Some states also allow lawyers to consider noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases.
Suing an individual for wrongful death first requires proving liability. This essentially involves demonstrating that the potential defendant meets all the legal criteria for negligence, in which:
- The defendant had a responsibility to act with reasonable care.
- The defendant breached that duty by omission or through a willful act.
- The defendant’s breach of duty caused the injury that led to the decedent’s death.
- The decedent’s death left the plaintiff with significant financial losses.
Issue a Demand
In some cases, an attorney may begin the settlement process by issuing a demand letter, which is a formal document one party sends to another to request payment to right a wrong in a dispute. The recipients of these documents, typically insurance companies, might not agree to the terms of the demand letter, so negotiation will likely begin.
At this point, both parties will work to achieve a fair settlement amount. If they cannot agree after several negotiations, the plaintiff can file a lawsuit and take their case to trial to pursue adequate financial recovery.
A Lawyer Can Help You with Your Wrongful Death Case
A wrongful death lawsuit involves a lengthy process that a claimant may find it challenging to pursue on their own. At Ben Crump Law, PLLC, our attorneys can help you learn how a wrongful death claim works in your state, navigate the wrongful death claim or lawsuit process on your behalf, and assist you in seeking compensation for your losses. Call us today at (800) 593-3443 to discuss your free case evaluation with our legal team.