“Wrongful death” refers to a kind of personal injury legal claim that can be filed by a lawyer after a person dies due to someone else’s negligent behavior or willful misconduct.
Behavior that is “negligent” involves conduct that a reasonably prudent person would not commit. It is behavior that is objectively unreasonable, but there is not an element of malice or intent to harm the victim. Examples of this could include automobile collisions or medical malpractice. By contrast, “misconduct” is more egregious, and tends to involve serious and willful behavior, such as criminal activity.
Each state has its own laws that define wrongful death and limit the time that a lawyer may file a wrongful death lawsuit. It is important to consult with an attorney who is experienced in wrongful death lawsuits as soon as possible, so that timelines may be met and evidence preserved. But generally speaking, all of the following elements must be proven for a plaintiff to prevail in a wrongful death case:
1. A human being, known as the “decedent,” must have died.
2. The death must have been caused by the negligence or misconduct of another.
3. The decedent must have left behind surviving “distributees.” These are people such as spouses, children, and other immediate family members.
4. A personal representative for the decedent’s estate must have been appointed.
Personal injury damages are typically awarded based on the financial loss suffered by the distributees. If a decedent earned a great deal of money and was in the prime of her career, then his or her distributees’ financial losses will be greater than if the decedent had been unemployed for many years with no prospect of regaining meaningful employment. Earning potential and history are critical factors that the plaintiff’s lawyer must prove. For this reason, very young or elderly decedents do not often command large verdicts.
The distinction between wrongful death lawsuits filed on the basis of negligent behavior versus misconduct is most important when the jury or judge decides to award damages. If the plaintiff proves that the defendant went beyond simple negligence and committed actual misconduct, then the plaintiff may be eligible to receive punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to sanction the defendant and deter others from similar behavior, so they can be awarded in much higher amounts than other kinds of economic damages.
Alisha Nickerson has provided several publications relating to legal advice, for both consumer and businesses. Ms. Nickerson has written informative editorial on personal injury law, employment law, insurance claims, and medical malpractice lawsuits.