Elements of a Wrongful Death Case

Losing a loved one is a painful experience which can leave the family without support, finances, and companionship.  Some people feel angry after losing a loved one and look for someone to blame, but not every unexpected death is appropriate for a wrongful death claim.  A wrongful death claim must have the following four elements which are explained further below.

  1. Negligence
  2. Breach of duty
  3. Causation
  4. Damages

Negligence in a Wrongful Death Claim

In order to bring a wrongful death claim, there must be negligence on the part of someone, which means that someone acted in a reckless or careless way, or is guilty of misconduct. Negligence is acting in a way that a reasonably prudent person would NOT act under similar circumstances.  A person’s reckless actions resulting in a death is not enough on its own to bring a wrongful death suit.

Breach of Duty

The person who acts recklessly must owe a duty to the person who died.  Different people have different types of duties.  A doctor has a high level of duty to his patient.  A person walking down the street has very little, if any, duty to another person walking down the street.  A driver has a duty to follow the laws of the road and to drive in a responsible manner.

Causation: Proving Cause of Death

In addition to the proving the elements above, the survivors will also have to prove the reckless or negligent behavior was the cause of death.  This can be a difficult element to prove because there are often many causes to a person’s death.

Damages of Many Types

The last element is damages.  There are always damages when a person dies, but the damages vary greatly depending on the factors regarding the family circumstances of the deceased.  In determining damages, a jury will consider the age of the deceased, whether he was the sole provider for his family, and the support and guidance he would offer to his dependants. The family of a young father of four will have more damages than a single 80 year old retired man.  Even someone who dies with no dependants may have medical and funeral expenses for the estate to pay and the personal representative of the estate can bring a wrongful death claim to cover those expenses.

Some Examples of these Elements

A couple examples of all the elements working together are as follows:  if a doctor does not follow standard medical procedure and his patient dies as a result of his carelessness, the family of the deceased could bring a wrongful death claim.  If a drunk driver swerves across the center line and kills the driver of another car driving responsibly in his own lane, the family of the deceased could bring a wrongful death claim against the drunk driver. 

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