The death of a loved one is an emotionally devastating experience for the surviving family members. It can also have dire financial consequences if the family depended upon the deceased individual for support and financial assistance. When the death is caused by the negligence or intentional act of another person or entity, such as a business or government agency, the responsible party might be liable for damages under a wrongful death claim.
What is wrongful death?
Wrongful death is a civil action brought under the laws of the state in which the death occurred. Oregon, for example, defines wrongful death as occurring when someone causes the death of a person through a wrongful act or omission. A lawsuit to collect damages for causing the death of another person is brought for the benefit of the family members of the deceased.
A few of the many situations that might give rise to a wrongful death lawsuit include:
• Motor vehicle accidents
• Airplane and helicopter crashes
• Medical malpractice or negligence by a health care professional or facility
• Deaths caused by defective products
• Deaths caused by exposure to hazardous or toxic chemicals and substances
States may place restrictions on who can file a wrongful death claim
A wrongful death claim is usually filed by the representative of the estate of the deceased, but each state has its own rules. Some states do not authorize family members of the deceased to file a wrongful death lawsuit, while other states do. For instance, Oregon designates a personal representative of the decedent’s estate or one of the following members of the individual’s family as being entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit:
• Surviving spouse
• Surviving children and stepchildren
• Surviving parents and stepparents
• Surviving relatives who were dependent upon the deceased for support
Regardless of who files the lawsuit, the damages collected are distributed to those relatives of the decedent proven by the evidence to be entitled to them.
Damages recoverable in a wrongful death case
The damages that can be sought in a wrongful death case vary from state to state. Some states, such as Oregon, allow family members to recover for the emotional pain and suffering they experience following the loss of their loved one, but other states, such as New York, do not. Depending upon the law in a particular state, the damages awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit could include:
• Expenses related to the funeral and burial of the victim
• Medical expenses for the care and treatment of the injuries that resulted in the death of the victim
• Loss of income provided by the victim
• Loss of future inheritance rights
• Loss of parental guidance and nurturing
• Gifts or other benefits the family members might have received from the deceased
Some states even permit jurors to consider evidence showing that the victim provided the bulk of the cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks. The verdict can include the value of such services if the jury believes a surviving spouse or other family member will be forced to incur a cost to hire someone to do them.
Survival actions differ from wrongful death claims
Oregon laws allow the estate of the victim of negligence or other wrongful conduct to sue the person causing the injuries and death in what is referred to as a “survival action.” Survival actions are brought by the representative of the estate, which might at first seem similar to a wrongful death claim, but survival claims are filed on behalf of the deceased rather than on behalf of the relatives. It is essentially the personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit the victim could have filed had they survived.
A jury can award the estate the value of the pain and suffering experienced by the victim provided there is evidence to prove it. For example, if car accident victim does not die immediately from the injuries suffered in the crash, a jury hearing the case may consider evidence of the serious nature of the injuries and the pain and suffering the victim experienced to award damages to the estate under a survival claim.
The distinction between survival actions and wrongful death is in the distribution of the compensation awarded in court. Money collected for wrongful death is received for the benefit of the family members designated by state law as entitled to receive a share of it and goes directly to them. Even in states where the estate representative, the executor or the administrator, can bring the lawsuit, the money collected from the defendant causing a wrongful death does not become part of the decedent’s estate.
This distinction is an important one because money going into an estate, as with compensation received as a result of a survival action, is subject to state and federal estate taxes. More importantly, estates are distributed according to the terms of a person’s last will and testament or through state intestacy laws. Wrongful death statutes are intended to benefit family members who suffer financial harm, but estate distribution laws are based upon relationships.
For example, if a man dies as the result of a botched surgical procedure, his entire estate, including the damages recovered in a survival action, would go to his wife and children under Oregon intestacy laws. His mother, who depended upon him for her support, would not receive a share of the estate. The mother would, however, be entitled to share in a wrongful death award because it does not pass through the estate.
Family members should seek competent legal advice
Wrongful death statutes create rights that can be lost if the procedures outlined in those laws are not strictly followed. Time limits for filing wrongful death claims can be shorter than other personal injury actions, and failing to file on time could result in the right to sue being lost. An attorney who has experience with wrongful death and personal injury claims could be a valuable resource if a family member is killed through the negligence or misconduct of another.