What Damages are Available in a Wrongful Death Case?

A look at the different types of compensation that could be available to surviving family members.

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When a loved one dies, it takes an enormous emotional toll on family members. It can also cause extreme financial hardship. Laws in each state provide the means to ease that financial burden when a person or entity is legally responsible for causing the deceased person's death. It's important to understand the different categories of compensation (called "damages" in legalese) that are available if your wrongful death lawsuit is successful. We'll cover that and more in this article.

What is a Wrongful Death Case?

A civil action brought by the survivors -- or the estate -- of a person who died due to the negligence or intentional actions of another is called a “wrongful death” case. Each state has a specific set of rules governing wrongful death claims, including rules identifying who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in the state's civil court system. Typically, a family member or the personal representative of the deceased’s estate will be able to file the suit. (Learn more:Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?) The rules of each state also specify when this kind of case needs to be filed, and the various types of damages that can be recovered.

What are the Different Categories of Damages in a Wrongful Death Case?

Damages in a wrongful death case typically fall into two broad categories, which are generally defined by two distinct time periods.

The first category permits recovery of damages experienced by the deceased from the moment of the negligent act causing the death, until the time of the decedent’s death. As an example, in the case of a car accident, this would cover the time from the occurrence of the crash until the deceased person's eventual death stemming from their accident injuries. That could occur hours, or even weeks after the accident. The particular damages in this category might include medical expenses, the deceased’s person's mental and physical pain and suffering, the deceased’s lost wages, and funeral and burial expenses.

The second broad category of damages covers those losses experienced by the next of kin after the deceased’s death. This category of damages is meant to compensate the family survivors for their financial losses. The laws of the various states indicate that these damages are generally intended to replace the value of money the deceased would have earned were it not for the untimely death. It includes the lost wages that would have been earned until the deceased’s anticipated retirement.

Some states also allow claims for “loss of consortium,” where a spouse or immediate family members are deprived of the deceased’s love and companionship. This is particularly significant where an adult parent dies and leaves behind minor children who are deprived of the guidance from the parent.

Learn more about Damages in Personal Injury Lawsuits.

Who Can Be Awarded Damages in a Wrongful Death Case?

In determining what types of damages will be awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit, a court will look at many different factors surrounding the deceased and his or her relationships with the different surviving family members. Typically, wrongful death damages can be awarded to:

  • Spouses – The surviving spouse usually has a claim for the lost companionship that resulted from the deceased’s death, as well as for the surviving spouse’s own emotional trauma arising out of the death.
  • Children – Minor children (but usually not adult children) may also be awarded damages for the lost benefits of their relationship with the deceased parent, including comfort and support.
  • Parents – Parents of a minor child who has passed away (but usually not parents of adult children) can also recover damages for their emotional trauma and the lost relationship with the child.

Depending on the circumstances of the deceased’s death, courts can also award punitive damages to the surviving family members. Punitive damages can be awarded where the defendant engaged in a particularly reckless or egregious type of conduct resulting in the deceased person's death. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant and to deter similar behavior in the future.

Learn more about Wrongful Death Claims.

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