Wrongful death claims are brought against a defendant who has caused someone's death either negligently or through intentional harm. Wrongful death claims allow the estate of the deceased person to file a lawsuit against the party who is legally liable for the death. The suit is usually filed by a representatative of the estate, on behalf of surviving family members and other affected parties.
A wrongful death claim is applicable when a victim who would otherwise have a personal injury claim is killed as a result of either negligence or an intentional harmful act on the part of the defendant. This can occur in a variety of situations, including:
When a victim is intentionally killed. For example, OJ Simpson was sued for wrongful death for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The case was based on an intentional act.
When a victim dies as a result of medical malpractice. If a doctor failed to diagnose a condition, or if the doctor was careless in the level of care provided, and death resulted, then a wrongful death action can be brought against the doctor.
Car accident fatalities involving negligence. If a victim dies as a result of car accident injuries, a wrongful death claim may be brought.
These are just a few examples of personal injury cases that can turn into wrongful death claims. A wrongful death claim can stem from almost any kind of personal injury situation, although one notable exception exists for work injuries that result in death, which usually must be handled exclusively through the worker's compensation system.
In order to hold the defendant liable in a wrongful death claim, the plaintiffs in the claim (usually through the estate of the deceased victim) must meet the same burden of proof that the victim would have had to meet had the victim lived. So, using negligence as an example, this means showing that the defendant owed the victim a duty of care, that the defendant breached this duty, that the breach of duty was a direct and proximate cause of the death, and that the death caused the damages that the plaintiff is trying to recover.
See How to Prove Fault for a Wrongful Death Claim for more on the legal elements you'll need to make your case.
A wrongful death claim is usually filed by a representative of the estate of the deceased victim, on behalf of survivors who had a relationship with the victim. Exactly who those survivors can be varies from state to state.
In all states, a spouse may bring a wrongful death action on behalf of his or her deceased spouse. Parents of minors may also bring a wrongful death action if one of their children is killed, and minors can collect compensation for the death of their parents. Where states start to disagree is whether parents of adult children can sue, whether adult children can sue for wrongful death of their parents, whether grown siblings can sue for wrongful death, or whether extended relatives like cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents can sue. Usually, the more distant the familial relationship is, the harder it will be to show that you should be allowed to collect wrongful death damages.
In some states, the life partner of the deceased may bring a wrongful death claim, as can anyone who can show financial dependence on the deceased.
Learn more in our article on Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Damages in a wrongful death claim -- categories of losses for which a survivor might be able to receive compensation -- include: