Navigating the practical implications of the traumatic loss of a loved one becomes even more challenging when someone's negligence or misconduct causes the loss.
The term wrongful death refers to instances where the negligence or wrongful acts of another individual or entity caused a person's death.
When a wrongful death occurs, the deceased's family members can pursue compensation through a wrongful death claim. This legal process can seem daunting, but a skilled wrongful death lawyer can protect your rights and guide you through this challenging time.
Understanding Wrongful Death
In legal terms, a wrongful death is a death that the negligence, misconduct, or intentional act of another individual or entity caused. This comprehensive definition encompasses various scenarios, from accidents caused by unaddressed hazards to purposeful, harmful actions.
The application of this definition varies according to the specifics of each situation.
Wrongful deaths can occur due to:
- Traffic accidents, including those involving cars, commercial vehicles, rideshares, motorcycles, bicycles, or pedestrians. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 42,000 people die yearly in motor vehicle accidents on U.S. roadways.
- Work-related accidents. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were more than 5,000 work-related fatalities in a single year, with a worker dying every 101 minutes. Some of the leading causes of work-related fatalities include transportation accidents, violent incidents involving coworkers, exposure to harmful substances, and fatalities relating to slips, trips, and falls.
- Premises liability matters, such as swimming pool accidents, slips and falls, and even deaths resulting from a property owner's negligence to provide security for guests from criminal actions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there are 11 unintentional drowning deaths per day in the United States, accounting for around 4,000 deaths a year.
- Dangerous products or environmental hazards, such as the water contamination at Camp Lejeune. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, as many as one million military personnel, their family members, and civilian workers at Camp Lejeune had exposure to hazardous substances in drinking water. There were subsequent links with cancer and other fatal conditions.
Hiring a knowledgeable wrongful death lawyer who can identify if your situation is eligible for a wrongful death claim is crucial. They can work through the complexities and specifics of the law to identify the actions or negligence that led to the tragic result.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Generally, immediate family members, such as spouses, children, and parents, can file a claim. In certain situations, financial dependents or life partners may also be eligible.
Speak with a lawyer to understand your rights in your specific situation. In some states, beneficiaries are eligible to file the claim on their own, while other state laws require an executor or administrator of the deceased's estate to file the claim.
How Long Do You Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Every state in the nation has a statute of limitations on certain types of legal actions, including wrongful death claims. The statute of limitations refers to the maximum amount of time that parties to a legal dispute must file their claim as a lawsuit in court.
The time limit varies widely between states, with some allowing only a year from the date of death to file a lawsuit, while others allow four years or more to file their claim in court.
Although most wrongful death cases settle, adherence to the statute of limitations is crucial, as claimants cannot usually use the court process to seek compensation for the expenses and impacts of their loss if the statute of limitations has expired. Insurance companies, moreover, no longer have to resolve claims that someone files after this deadline.
Why Do Insurance Companies Make It Difficult for Family Members to Obtain the Compensation They Need?
It is essential to understand that the goal of an insurance company is to make money through selling policies. When people file claims against the policies of the company's insured, the company must resolve the claim. They will attempt to minimize their losses by using claims adjusters to evaluate the claim and determine the least amount of money necessary to resolve it.
When someone files a wrongful death claim, the claims adjuster will investigate to determine three things:
- Is the insured liable for the incident that led to someone's death?
- When someone files a claim against a policy, does that policy provide liability coverage for such incidents?
- If the insured is liable and coverage is available, how much should the claimant receive?
Once the claims adjuster has evaluated the claim, they can either accept it and submit it for processing, deny it and notify the claimant and their attorney of the reason for the denial, or offer to settle the claim out of court for less than its stated value.
Because litigation is expensive, time-consuming, and in some cases, very public, most wrongful death claims resolve through a negotiated settlement. The initial settlement offer that the claims adjuster makes is almost always far below the claim's value, and a wrongful death lawyer uses their communication skills to negotiate the highest settlement possible for their client.
Engage a lawyer at the earliest stage of the process. A lawyer can preserve evidence, promptly interview witnesses, and protect your rights from the start. A lawyer's guidance can greatly improve the outcome of your wrongful death claim.
While a lawyer can provide you with guidance through the process, the specifics of timelines and potential outcomes can vary greatly from case to case. Never make any assumptions or speculate on these matters. Always ask your lawyer for tailored advice for your specific situation.
Frequently Asked Questions About Wrongful Death
If an unborn child dies as a result of someone's negligence, can someone file a wrongful death claim?
In most states, a person must be born alive for their death to be wrongful. Many states, however, list the loss of a fetus as a serious injury to the mother, paving the way for claimants in some cases who have lost an unborn child as a result of someone else's negligence to seek compensation for medical expenses and emotional trauma that they incurred as a result of the loss.
But even if you cannot pursue a wrongful death claim, other legal actions can help you seek justice and compensation for your loss. A wrongful death lawyer can explain the details to you and take the appropriate action for you.
Are punitive damages available in wrongful death claims?
It depends on the case and the state where the death occurred. In many circumstances, a claimant can seek punitive damages based on extreme recklessness by the defendant that resulted in death. It is notable, however, that many states also cap the amount of punitive damages you can recover.
Can someone file a wrongful death claim after the death of a child or an elderly person?
While it is the loss of financial support that the deceased had provided that compels many family members to seek compensation through the wrongful death claims process, you can still absolutely file claims involving the death of a child or an older adult who did not earn an income or financially support a family.
You can also seek compensation for other financial or psychological losses, including the deceased's final medical costs or the loss of love and companionship that the deceased provided to family members.
How long does it take to get a wrongful death settlement?
Depending on the circumstances of the case, a wrongful death settlement can take several weeks to longer than a year. Some of the most common delays occur when the defendant and their insurance company dispute liability for the incident that led to the death or when the insurance company refuses to make an acceptable settlement offer. Delays in evidence-gathering and the legal process of ensuring the preservation of available evidence for the case can take additional time.
Glossary of Legal Terms Relating to Wrongful Death
Legal matters are commonly full of terms that may need to be clarified for those inexperienced in the law. Here are the meanings of some of the terms you will likely hear as your case proceeds through the claims process.
The plaintiff, who people sometimes refer to as the claimant, is an individual who is seeking relief through legal action. In a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff is one of the deceased's family members who is seeking compensation for the financial and psychological impacts of their loss.
People sometimes refer to the defendant as the at-fault party. It is the individual or entity whose negligence led to the death.
Liability refers to the legal responsibility that the at-fault party has to pay for the financial and psychological harm their negligence inflicted.
Damages refer to the compensation that wrongful death claimants receive through the claims process. Economic damages involve compensation for expenses that the family members incurred. Non-economic damages include compensation for the emotional impact they suffered.
Punitive damages refer to compensation the court awards to the claimant for the defendant's extreme recklessness that led to the death.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations refers to the time that claimants have to file their case as a lawsuit in court. While they must have filed the case, there does not have to be a resolution by this date.
An out-of-court settlement is an offer the at-fault party's insurance provider makes that is typically less than the claim's value. If the claimant accepts the offer, they are ineligible to seek any additional compensation on the claim through the court process and must request that the judge dismiss the case if they have already filed a lawsuit. The parties can enter a settlement agreement at any time, from when the plaintiff files the claim until a judge or jury renders a decision at trial.
Beneficiaries are people who the deceased had designated to receive the benefits of their finances or property upon death. In states where an executor or administrator of the deceased's estate has to file a wrongful death claim, the beneficiaries of the compensation from that claim are the deceased's family members, such as a spouse, parents, or children.
Intestate succession is a legal action in which the court distributes the property of someone who has died without having a legal will or other document designating who should receive their assets. Intestate succession laws help an attorney determine whether someone can file or benefit from filing a wrongful death claim.