Elements and Considerations in a Wrongful Death Case
One of the hardest parts about being a lawyer is receiving calls from folks who have lost a loved one under tragic circumstances. Death is difficult even under the best case, like when a loved one passes painlessly in their sleep having lived 9 or 10 decades of a rich, full life. But when death comes much earlier and as a consequence of someone else’s conduct, it can be agonizing in the extreme. In those instances, oftentimes more than just a funeral is required for the deceased’s loved ones to successfully navigate the grieving process. And that can include getting some sense of closure about the conduct that took a loved one much too soon. To get that closure, families sometimes need to pursue what’s known in the law as a “wrongful death” case. And while I hope no one reading this ever finds themselves in such a situation, here are a few considerations to keep in mind if you ever do.
To succeed in a “wrongful death” case, one must advance evidence to show a jury that, more likely than not, a person or corporate entity behaved in a way that breached a duty they owed to the decedent, or the general public and that breach of duty was a proximate cause of the decedent’s death. That duty can be as basic as a duty not to act in a manner that puts another’s safety at risk and can include things like a duty to:
- Stop at red lights
- Clean up floors that are known to be slick
- Warn the public of certain dangerous side effects from taking medication
- Myriad of other duties depending on the particular scenario
Generally speaking, proximate cause in that scenario means an act that causes the death as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the death would not have occurred.
The final element one must prove in a “wrongful death” case is damages. While the damage is somewhat obvious where death is involved, the issue there centers more on who receives those damages. Since the decedent is no longer alive to bring a wrongful death claim, the case must be prosecuted in Court through a decedent’s estate, and most if not all states have laws that designate certain “estate beneficiaries” – those people who are entitled to receive a portion of any proceeds recovered in a wrongful death case. Those “estate beneficiaries” often include:
- Surviving spouses
Though, importantly, these can vary from state to state. And oftentimes, even if the decedent leaves a Will, it makes no difference and the law naming the categories of “estate beneficiaries”, and not the Will itself, determine those individuals eligible to receive any wrongful death proceeds. Also, because a wrongful death claim must be brought in the name of the decedent’s estate, a living estate representative must be appointed (through the Court in the county in which the decedent died) who can pursue the case on behalf of the Estate.
Although it can certainly feel overwhelming to pursue a wrongful death in the face of such tragedy, a qualified law firm can help tremendously to lessen the additional burden of going through a wrongful death claim where a family finds it necessary to investigate why their loved one was put in harm’s way and hold the perpetrator responsible in order to fully recover from such an awful event.