Proving Wrongful Death in a Civil Case

How do you establish the defendant's legal liability in a wrongful death lawsuit?

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If a person’s death is caused by the negligence of another person or entity, the surviving family members usually have the right to bring a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the responsible person. This type of lawsuit is called a wrongful death case. Each state has very specific rules governing wrongful death claims. However, there are some general principles that are common among most states in regard to both the nature of the wrongful death claim and also the procedure controlling the lawsuit. We'll touch on those in this article, with an emphasis on what must be proven in this type of case.

What is a Wrongful Death Civil Case?

A wrongful death claim is a civil suit for monetary damages. A civil suit is very different from criminal charges that a prosecutor or district attorney may file against the same defendant. Criminal charges typically result in some type of punishment, such as a fine or imprisonment. However, a criminal prosecution does not award damages to any of the surviving family members following the deceased’s death. Damages can only be obtained through the civil lawsuit. Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.

Who are the Parties in a Wrongful Death Case?

The person bringing a civil lawsuit is called the “Plaintiff.” In a wrongful death case, the Plaintiff is typically a close family member who brings the claim on behalf of all heirs of the deceased.

If the deceased person died with a will, the court often appoints an executor or personal representative of the estate. In that instance, the Plaintiff in the lawsuit is usually the estate’s executor or personal representative who, again, brings the lawsuit on behalf of the deceased’s heirs.

The person or entity against whom the lawsuit is brought is the “Defendant.” The lawsuit will allege that the Defendant acted intentionally or negligently and was responsible for the untimely death of the deceased person.

What Must the Plaintiff Prove in a Wrongful Death Case?

Once a lawsuit is filed, the Plaintiff still must prove the various elements of a wrongful death claim before any damages can be awarded.

In other words, the Plaintiff must show the court that the Defendant was negligent, and that the Defendant’s negligence caused the deceased’s death, before the court will order the Defendant to pay any damages.

Typically, the Plaintiff must prove the following elements of a wrongful death case:

  • Duty of Care – The Plaintiff must prove to the court that the Defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased person. For example, in the case of a car accident, the Plaintiff must prove that the Defendant had an obligation to obey the Rules of the Road and drive carefully while operating any vehicle
  • Breach of Duty of Care – The Plaintiff must prove that the Defendant breached the duty of care owed to the Defendant. Again, if the situation involves a car accident, the Plaintiff must show that the Defendant failed to obey the applicable traffic laws, such as by speeding or by running a red light; and
  • Causation – It is not sufficient that the Plaintiff merely show that the Defendant broke the law in some manner, or breached a duty in some other way. The Plaintiff must also show that Defendant’s particular action directly caused the wrongful death. So, even if the Defendant ran a red light while driving a car, the Defendant is not responsible for the deceased’s death if the death was caused by something else, such as a mechanical failure on the deceased’s vehicle.

Learn more about Proving Negligence in an Injury Case. (Note: Some wrongful death lawsuits are based on allegations that the defendant acting intentionally in causing the deceased person's death. Learn more about Intentional Torts.)

The Burden of Proof in a Wrongful Death Case

In proving each of the above elements, the Plaintiff must meet the "burden of proof."

While the laws in each state may describe the Burden of Proof differently, each state generally requires the Plaintiff to prove the elements of negligence by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

Some states instruct juries to determine whether it is “more likely than not” that the Defendant caused the deceased’s death. The Burden of Proof in a civil case is much lower than in a criminal case, where the typical standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Burden of Proof is not a measure of the quantity of evidence that the Plaintiff presents. For example, just because the Plaintiff presents more witnesses at trial than the Defendant, that doesn't mean the Plaintiff has met the Burden of Proof. Rather, the quality and credibility of the evidence is measured. If the Plaintiff fails to meet the burden of proof on any of the elements of negligence, the Plaintiff will not recover any damages.

While many lawsuits are resolved by pre-trial settlement agreements, many cases can only be resolved by going to trial. Depending on the state where the case is being heard, a judge or a jury will decide whether the Plaintiff has met the Burden of Proof on the evidentiary issues. Most states do not require that the jury reach a unanimous verdict, but the rules governing jury deliberations do vary from state to state.

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