This article examines key portions of Arkansas's wrongful death statutes. We'll look at how a wrongful death claim is defined in Arkansas, and who is eligible to file this kind of lawsuit. We'll also talk about the damages available in a wrongful death action, and the time limits for filing this particular type of lawsuit in the Arkansas civil court system.
What is Wrongful Death?
A wrongful death claim arises when one person dies due to the negligent conduct (or even an intentional act) of another person or company. In some cases, such as an auto accident or medical malpractice, the link between the negligence and the death may be easy to identify. In other cases, such as those involving defective products, the link may only be uncovered after extensive research.
One way to think of a wrongful death claim is as a special type of personal injury case. In most personal injury claims, the injured person brings his or her own case to court after suffering some type of harm. In a wrongful death, however, the injured person is deceased and is obviously unable to bring any kind of legal action. Instead, the personal representative of the deceased person's estate or the deceased person's heirs at law may bring the case to court.
A wrongful death claim may be filed in Arkansas even if a criminal law case is already underway and is connected to the same events. A wrongful death claim is a civil law case, meaning that the estate brings the case directly on its own behalf, and fault is expressed solely in terms of compensation by way of a damages award.
By contrast, a criminal law case is brought by the state, and guilt is penalized by jail or prison time, probation, and other requirements.
Who May Bring a Wrongful Death Claim in Arkansas?
In Arkansas, the personal representative of the deceased person's estate must bring the wrongful death claim to court, if such a representative has been appointed. If there is no personal representative -- for instance, if the deceased person is a child who has no estate -- then the claim may be filed by the deceased person's heirs at law.
Heirs who may file a wrongful death claim in Arkansas include:
- the deceased person's surviving spouse, children, parents, or siblings
- persons standing "in loco parentis," and
- persons to whom the deceased stood in loco parentis.
Damages in Arkansas Wrongful Death Claims
Arkansas law separates wrongful death claims into two sub-categories: the estate claim and the family claim.
The estate claim is a claim by the estate of the deceased person. It seeks compensation for losses the deceased person suffered as a result of his or her untimely death. Common damages that are paid in an estate claim include:
- funeral and burial costs
- medical bills for treatment of the deceased person's last illness or injury
- pain and suffering the deceased endured before death, and
- the loss of the value of the deceased person's remaining life, including wages he or she would likely have earned.
The family claim is a claim by the surviving family members of the deceased person. It seeks compensation for losses the family members suffered as a result of losing their family member to an untimely death. Common damages that are paid in a family claim include:
- loss of the financial support of the deceased person
- loss of household services, and
- loss of care, comfort, and guidance.
Neither the damages awarded to the estate nor the damages awarded to the family may become part of the estate's taxable assets. In addition, damages paid for the family claim are paid directly to family members, not to the estate.
Family members must decide how to divide the lump sum that is typically awarded by a court in a successful Arkansas wrongful death claim. If family members cannot reach an agreement, a court may make a binding ruling regarding how the award is to be divided.
Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.
How Long Do I Have to File an Arkansas Wrongful Death Claim?
Like personal injury claims, wrongful death claims must be filed within a certain time period (in legalese, this is known as the statute of limitations). If a case is not filed within the time period set by the statute of limitations, surviving family members and the estate will very likely lose the right to file the case at all.
The statute of limitations for wrongful death claims in Arkansas is one year, meaning that a wrongful death claim must be filed within one year of the date of the decedent's death, assuming it's reasonably clear at that time that the defendant's negligence or intentional action played a role in causing the death.