Like other states, Alabama has laws that govern wrongful death claims brought to civil court within the state. In this article, we'll examine several key points of Alabama wrongful death law, including how the state defines "wrongful death," who may bring a wrongful death suit to court, and the time limits on filing such claims.
What is "Wrongful Death" in Alabama?
Alabama law defines a "wrongful death" as one that is caused by the "wrongful act, omission, or negligence" of another. Section 6-5-410 of the Code of Alabama specifies that the estate of a deceased person may bring a wrongful death suit against a party that causes such a death in any case in which the deceased person could have brought a personal injury claim, had he or she had lived.
The statute provides a useful way of thinking about a wrongful death claim: as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer capable of seeking compensation from the party that caused the injury. Instead, the estate of the deceased person steps in to seek compensation on the deceased person's behalf. Any losses that a negligent party is held liable for must be paid back to the estate.
The Code of Alabama also states that a wrongful death claim may be brought to court "though there has not been prosecution, conviction, or acquittal of the defendant" for the "wrongful act, omission, or negligence" that caused the death. In other words, a wrongful death claim may be filed in a civil court even if the defendant is not facing criminal charges related to the same death.
A wrongful death case differs from a criminal case in two key ways. First, a wrongful death case is a civil claim, which is brought by a private party. A criminal case is filed by the state against a certain person or entity. Second, liability in a civil case is expressed solely in terms of damages, while guilt in a criminal case may be punished by imprisonment or other penalties.
Who May File a Wrongful Death Case in Alabama?
Unlike other states, Alabama does not allow family members of a deceased person to file a wrongful death claim, either on their own behalf or on behalf of the deceased person.
Instead, Alabama limits the ability to file a wrongful death claim to the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. Only the estate may bring a wrongful death case, and all damages in a wrongful death case in Alabama are paid to the estate.
Damages in an Alabama Wrongful Death Case
Alabama handles damages in wrongful death cases differently than other states. While most U.S. states allow for compensatory damages in wrongful death cases to cover the costs of funeral expenses, medical bills, and other losses resulting from the untimely death, Alabama wrongful death law allows only for punitive damages. In other words, while most states focus on the loss of the deceased person's life and related damages, Alabama wrongful death law focuses almost completely on the wrongdoing of the defendant.
Alabama's wrongful death law has a twofold purpose: to punish a defendant who is found negligent, and to deter similar negligence by other parties. Any damages awarded in a wrongful death case are paid directly to the heirs of the deceased person. Unlike in other states, the damages are not made part of the estate.
As in any state, the place in which the deceased person passed away is a key factor in determining which state's wrongful death laws apply. In order for the Alabama law to apply to a wrongful death case, the deceased person must have passed away within the borders of the state of Alabama. If the deceased person passed away in another state, the laws of that state will apply to the wrongful death case. If you have questions about which state's laws apply in a particular case, get in touch with an experienced attorney.
Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Case in Alabama
Alabama's "statute of limitations" sets a time limit for filing a wrongful death claim in Alabama's civil court system. The case must be filed within two years of the date of death. Because certain factors can change the running of this two-year time period, it is wise for personal representatives considering a wrongful death suit in Alabama to seek the advice of an attorney who is licensed to practice law within the state.