Definition and Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Wrongful death is an area of law that may cover both criminal and tort law. Of course, everyone is familiar with the concept that taking the life of another human being is murder, at one form or another, and is punishable in the criminal courts through incarceration. However, there are certain instances, deaths, and cases of wrongful death tort law as well. For example, an estate of a murder victim may file a civil suit against a convicted murder of their loved one, as well as file against an individual that was acquitted in the criminal courts for the murder. Most famous example of this being the Goldman family versus O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990's that led to a wrongful death settlement in favor of the plaintiffs. But, what about cases where another's actions clearly led to the death of another, but there is no way they can be held criminally responsible? How do you know who can sue for wrongful death? Well, loved ones can demand damages for the loss of their loved one under tort law, which is decided in the arena of the civil courts.

When is it Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death is an area of tort law that follows specific legal proceedings for filing, hearing, settling, and winning a judgment wrongful death award. Foremost, for a wrongful death case to occur there must be a decedent, or a dead person. Secondly, the estate or loved ones of the dead family member may feel that others are partially or wholly to blame for the death of their loved one. They, in turn, would start suing for wrongful death against these individuals and other parties, who would now be defendants in a wrongful death civil case. Under tort law, defendants named in suits have ample opportunity to dismiss foolish or otherwise irrelevant suits from the onset. Additionally, the burden of proving the wrongful death liability of the said defendants is the responsibility of the party that filed the suit in the first place, who is now known as the plaintiff. Therefore, for a wrongful death case to even proceed after filing, plaintiffs must provide enough evidence to convince a judge that named defendants in the suit were partially or wholly responsible, liable, or negligent in a manner that lead to the death of their loved one.

Wrongful Death vs. Murder

Again, a murderer can be found liable for the wrongful death of an individual and guilty at the same time. In essence, tort courts and criminal courts agree that the individual killed the other party, beyond a reasonable doubt and at least in part. However, some wrongful death cases are not clear-cut whatsoever. For example, a patient dying on the operating table may have sustained sufficient injuries to kill them prior to the surgery, but if a medical error contributed to the death of the patient during the surgery, a case for wrongful death may be made. Murder charges, however, are extremely unlikely, unless there was an intention to kill, or the actions were so negligent that the individual was aware they could potentially cause death of others. This is a very unlikely scenario in even the worst practicing of medical professionals.

Essentially, in a murder case, prosecutors must prove defendants were criminally negligent or outright intentionally took the life of another individual. Cases such as those involving non-alcohol or road rage related car accidents leading to death, unless charged otherwise, are not murder whatsoever, but at worst, some form of manslaughter if sufficient evidence exists that criminal levels of negligence precipitated the crash, injuries sustained in the crash, and death of a victim.

How a Wrongful Death Lawsuit is Different

In a tort case involving wrongful death, the said car crash may have lead to criminal charges, an acquittal of criminal charges, or no criminal charges being filed at all. However, the estate of the car crash victim may still pursue legal action in the civil courts in the pursuit of justice. Granted, no incarceration or other judicial penalties can be made against others, but an estate of the victim can force the persons involved in the car crash to pay damages applicable to a wrongful death claim. But, how are these damages assessed, and who was really at fault? Under tort law, these questions are resolved. The plaintiffs will state a defendant owes them a certain amount of damages for the role played in the death of their loved one. The defendant can refute these claims, or if a plaintiff cannot sufficiently prove negligence or liability of the defendant that led to the death, the case is dismissed.

Elements of Wrongful Death Lawsuit

There are key elements applicable to every wrongful death case. First, a plaintiff must be able to show that an actual death of their loved one occurred. Second, the plaintiff must prove that named defendants were negligent before, during, or after a given event that led to the death of the victim. Third, the negligent actions of the defendant make them liable, responsible, or at-fault, at least partially or in whole, for the death of the victim. Finally, the liable and negligent actions must have directly attributed to the death of the individual, and in turn, the damages sustained by family members and other loved ones.

Who Receives Compensation for a Wrongful Death Award?

In wrongful death claims, the parties that may make claims for compensation include spouse and dependents first. If no spouse or dependents are applicable, then other immediate family members may proceed with a suit, as well as all named heirs and beneficiaries. In theory, these individuals are owed compensation for the damages the loss of their loved one, which was determined at least partially at the fault of a defendant.

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