Illinois has specific state laws that govern wrongful death claims brought within the state. In this article, we'll look at some key aspects of those laws, starting with the definition of "wrongful death" in Illinois and who can bring this kind of civil action in the state's courts. We'll also look at the time limits on filing an Illinois wrongful death lawsuit and the damages that may be available if such a case succeeds in court.
Defining Wrongful Death in Illinois
A "wrongful death" occurs when the negligent or wrongful act of one party causes the death of another. The Illinois Compiled Statutes define a wrongful death as a death caused by "wrongful act, neglect, or default."
One way to think of a wrongful death case in Illinois is as a personal injury case in which the deceased person is no longer available to bring his or her own injury claim to court. Instead, the claim must be brought by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. Any damages awarded in the wrongful death case are distributed by the estate to the surviving beneficiaries of the deceased person, such as the deceased person's spouse, children, parents, or siblings.
Who May File a Wrongful Death Claim in Illinois?
In Illinois, a wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. The personal representative may be a close relative of the deceased person, such as:
- a spouse of the deceased
- a parent of a minor child who is deceased, or
- an adult child of the deceased
If the deceased person died without appointing a personal representative in his or her estate plan, the court may appoint a personal representative.
The personal representative is responsible for pursuing the wrongful death claim as well as carrying out other key tasks related to the estate. Damages that are awarded in the wrongful death case may be paid directly to the estate, where the personal representative may be responsible for distributing them to family members.
There are two key differences between a wrongful death claim and a criminal case, even when both cases are based on the events surrounding the same death. A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit. It is brought to court by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate directly, and any liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages. By contrast, a criminal case is brought by the state or federal government, and guilt is punished by jail or prison time, probation, or other penalties. A wrongful death case may be brought to court even if the government is also pursuing a criminal case.
Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim in Illinois
In Illinois, a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within the time limit, or "statute of limitations," set by law for the underlying type of case, or within one year of the date of the deceased person's death, "whichever date is the later," according to 735 ILCS 5/13-209. So, for personal injury cases -- which must be filed within two years of the date of the accident -- that means the representatives have at least one year, and as much as two years, to get the initial lawsuit filed in the Illinois court system. If the case is not filed within the applicable time limit, the court may refuse to hear it at all.
If you've got questions about how the Illinois filing deadline applies to your specific wrongful death case, it may be time speak to an experienced attorney.
Damages in an Illinois Wrongful Death Case
Damages in an Illinois wrongful death case are paid to the estate, which distributes them to the deceased person's next of kin. Damages may cover costs such as:
- the deceased person's final medical bills, including emergency care costs
- funeral and burial expenses
- lost wages and income, including lost wages the person would likely have earned if he or she had lived
- damages for pain and suffering the deceased person experienced before death
- costs related to damaged property
- lost value of household or other services provided by the deceased, and
- loss of care, companionship, and other intangible benefits by the family members of the deceased.
Certain damages are payable to certain parties in an Illinois wrongful death case. For instance, funeral and burial expenses are typically paid to the estate directly, since these are costs imposed on the estate. Damages for the loss of care or companionship, however, typically belong to family members such as the deceased person's spouse or children.