Each state has its own set of laws regarding how wrongful death claims are handled in civil court. This article examines some key points of Delaware law as it applies to these kinds of cases. We'll look at what a "wrongful death" is, who may bring a wrongful death claim in a civil court, the time limits on filing these types of lawsuits, and the types of damages that might be available in a wrongful death case in Delaware.
Defining Wrongful Death in Delaware
Delaware Code Title 10, Chapter 37 states that a civil case may be brought against "a person whose wrongful act causes the death of another." A "wrongful act" includes any "act, neglect or default" that, if the deceased person had lived, would allow the deceased person to have filed a personal injury case.
One way to think of a wrongful death case is as a variation of a typical personal injury claim. In most personal injury cases, an injured person seeks compensation from someone else whose wrongful, negligent, or reckless act caused the injury. In a wrongful death claim, however, the injury has proved fatal and the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own claim to court.
If a personal injury claim is filed and then the injured person dies, the estate may take over the case and pursue it as a wrongful death claim in Delaware. If the person against whom the claim is filed dies, the civil case may be filed against the personal representative of that person's estate.
Who May File a Delaware Wrongful Death Case?
In Delaware, wrongful death actions are pursued "for the benefit of the spouse, parent, child, and siblings" of the deceased person.
"Child" includes children born out of wedlock, and "parent" includes parents who were not married to one another at the time the child was born.
"Siblings" may either be related to the deceased person through both parents, or through only one parent.
If no spouse, parent, child, or sibling has survived the deceased person, a wrongful death claim may still be filed. In this situation, any damages awarded in the wrongful death claim will be "to the benefit of any person related to the deceased person by blood or marriage."
Damages in a Delaware Wrongful Death Claim
Damages in a Delaware wrongful death claim are paid if the jury finds the defendant liable for the death of the person on whose behalf the case was filed. These monetary damages are divided among the beneficiaries of the deceased person, in proportion to the injuries suffered as a result of the untimely death.
The amount of damages to be awarded in any wrongful death case is decided by the jury, or by the judge if there is no jury. When deciding the amount of damages to award, the judge or jury may consider factors like:
- reasonable funeral and burial expenses
- lost wages and benefits that the deceased person would have earned if he or she had lived
- loss of contributions for spousal or child support
- loss of parental, marital and household services, including the reasonable cost of caring for minor children, and
- mental anguish resulting from the death of a spouse or child.
Some states recognize two separate actions for wrongful death claims, one belonging to the estate of the deceased person and the other belonging to the surviving family members. But Delaware recognizes only a single wrongful death claim that combines both types of losses into one action. Damages from that claim go to the family, not to the estate.
Time Limits on Delaware Wrongful Death Claims
A law known as the "statute of limitations" sets a time limit on filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Delaware's civil court system. In Delaware, a wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the date of the deceased person's death. Claims filed after the two-year deadline has passed are almost always going to be barred from court.
In Delaware, a wrongful death claim is a civil case. It can be filed in a court even if a criminal case is also proceeding based on the same facts surrounding the death -- for instance, if a vehicular homicide case is filed after a car accident causes a death.
Civil wrongful death cases and criminal homicide cases differ in two key ways. A wrongful death case is brought to court by the survivors directly, and liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages. In a criminal case, the charges are filed in court by the prosecutor, who works for the state or federal government, and guilt in a criminal case is punished by penalties like jail or prison time, probation, fines, and other requirements.