Georgia's statutes include specific rules regarding wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll take a look at a few key parts of those laws, including the time limits for filing a wrongful death claim in Georgia's civil court system and the damages that are available if a wrongful death claim succeeds. We'll also look at who may file a wrongful death claim and what counts as "wrongful death" in Georgia.
What is "Wrongful Death" in Georgia?
Georgia state law defines a "wrongful death" as the death of one person caused by the "negligent, reckless, intentional, or criminal" acts of another person or entity (such as a business). Negligence is typically defined as a failure to use reasonable care when there is a duty to do so, resulting in harm to another.
In some ways, a wrongful death case is similar to a standard personal injury claim. Negligence must also be proven in many types of personal injury claims, and both a personal injury claim and a wrongful death claim may be based upon a similar event, like a car accident. However, in a wrongful death claim, the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own case to court. Instead, the case must be brought by the deceased person's family members -- or by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate if there are no living family members who are allowed to bring the claim (more on this in the next section).
Who May File a Georgia Wrongful Death Claim?
Georgia law specifies who may bring a wrongful death claim to court, beginning with the spouse of the deceased person. If the spouse and the deceased person had minor children, the surviving spouse must also represent the interests of the children in court. In no case can the spouse receive less than one-third of the total recovery, no matter how many children there are.
If no surviving spouse or children are available to bring the claim to court, the claim may be brought by the following parties:
- the surviving parent or parents of the deceased, or
- the personal representative of the deceased person's estate.
If the personal representative brings the claim, any damages recovered are held by the estate for the benefit of the deceased person's next of kin.
Damages Available in Georgia Wrongful Death Claims
Georgia recognizes two separate and distinct types of wrongful death claims. The first is a claim to establish the "full value of the life of the deceased." This claim is brought by or on behalf of the surviving family members of the deceased person. It includes monetary damages related to both the financial and intangible value of the deceased person's life, such as:
- lost wages and benefits, including what the deceased person might reasonably have earned if he or she had lived, and
- loss of care, companionship, and other intangible benefits the deceased provided to loved ones.
The second kind of claim is one that is meant to remedy the financial losses related to the deceased person's death. This claim is brought by or on behalf of the deceased person's estate, and it seeks to establish and recover the losses the estate suffered in relation to the untimely death. Damages that may be recovered in this claim include:
- medical expenses related to the deceased person's last illness or injury
- funeral and burial expenses, and
- conscious pain and suffering endured by the deceased just before death.
Time Limits on Georgia Wrongful Death Claims
Georgia's statute of limitations limits the time the survivors or personal representative have to bring a wrongful death case to court. In most cases, the wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the date of death. If the claim is not filed within the two-year time limit, the right to bring it is almost always lost.
It's important to note that the two-year clock "tolls" or stops running in some situations. Specifically, if there is a criminal case in court that deals with the same events as the wrongful death case, the time limit on the wrongful death cases is suspended until the criminal case is completed. The two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death begins to run again on the date the criminal case is completed.
Also, Georgia law allows the statute of limitations in wrongful death cases to be tolled for up to five years if the deceased person's estate is not probated. This means that, in some cases, a wrongful death claim may be filed up to seven years after the date of death. If you've got questions, it is important to speak to an experienced Georgia attorney to know how the statute of limitations may apply in a particular case.