Wrongful death is the term used when someone, by action or by failure to act (neglect), causes the death of another person. Wrongful death is a civil action rather than a criminal action. Victims of wrongful death cannot pursue compensation for themselves. The law, therefore, permits that victim’s family or estate to bring a wrongful death action to collect damages on their behalf. The intent is to provide fair compensation to family members who have suffered either financially or emotionally from the wrongful death. Damages, or the court awarded compensation, are can be assessed by loss of wages and benefits, loss of companionship, emotional pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
Grounds for a Claim
Different states have different methods for deciding who may file a
suit or recover damages for wrongful death. Generally, to have valid grounds for a wrongful death claim, it must be shown that:
- the death was caused, in whole or partially, by another's wrongful act,
- the victim was is survived by the spouse, children, dependents or beneficiaries,
- if the victim were alive, then she would be due damages from the act, and
- that monetary damages did arise from the act.
Wrongful Death Liability
A defendant is held liable (responsible) for a wrongful death only if the defendant's conduct is proved to be the cause of the death. For proof to be established, it must be shown that without the defendant's act or negligence, the death would not have occurred. The time between the defendant's action and the victim’s death is not a factor if can be proved that the defendant's action was the cause of death.
If the victim is shown to be partially responsible for his or her death, they could be found to have been comparatively or contributorily negligent. State laws vary on how to assess liability. States can base this on either comparative negligence, contributory negligence, or a mixture of each. Some states will award damage based on the percentage of fault assigned to the victim. For example, assume a victim fails to seek appropriate medical care and that failure led to his or her death. The intervening cause of the victim actions in his own death might exclude grounds for a wrongful death claim, or reduce the amount of damages awarded.
In a case of wrongful death, damages are assessed to compensate family members for their loss. There are many ways to calculate damages, but since damages may be awarded for several different reasons, it is important to examine each individual claim carefully. The most obvious financial impact of wrongful death are the actual expenses incurred by medical and death costs. These usually are easy to determine.
Less obvious but equally important are the loss of future earnings, benefits, and loss of companionship. These damages include anticipating the lifespan and earnings of the victim, and the impact of the death on remaining family members. Such factors make assigning a dollar value to the impact of loss difficult.
Loss of companionship is very difficult to calculate since it is totally subjective and does not lend itself to empirical measurements. It is a measure of the emotional pain and suffering experienced by the survivors.
A final area of damages is punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant, rather than to compensate for a specific loss. They are typically awarded when the action of the defendant was intentional or grossly negligent. There is also a public interest in punitive damages to dissuade like defendants from committing similar acts in the future.