Indiana, like all other states, has its own state laws governing wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll examine key parts of Indiana's wrongful death statute. We'll also take a look at how these rules might affect a wrongful death claim in the real world.
Defining Indiana "Wrongful Death"
Indiana's wrongful death statute, Indiana Code 34-23-1, defines wrongful death as a situation in which "the death of one is caused by the wrongful act or omission of another."
One way to understand a wrongful death claim is to think of it as a personal injury lawsuit in which the injured person has died. Because the injured person has passed away, he or she is not available to serve as a plaintiff in the personal injury case. Instead, the estate of the deceased person steps in:
- to establish liability on the part of the defendant whose negligence caused the death, and
- to seek money damages.
A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit, which means that it is filed by the estate directly, and that liability is expressed solely in terms of civil damages. In some cases, criminal charges may be filed by the state based on the same events. For example, if a death is caused by a car crash in which the at-fault driver was drunk, the state may file criminal charges against the surviving driver under Indiana's vehicular manslaughter law. However, the criminal case is a separate claim from any wrongful death claim. To obtain damages for negligence, the estate must file a wrongful death case, even if a criminal case is already proceeding.
Who May File an Indiana Wrongful Death Claim?
In Indiana, a wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. However, damages may be awarded to the deceased person's spouse, children, or other dependents. If more than one person is eligible to receive damages in a wrongful death case, the court will decide how to split up the total damages award.
In a wrongful death claim involving the death of a child, the case must be filed by one or both of the child's parents. If the parents are divorced, the claim must be filed by a parent who has legal custody of the child. If both parents are deceased or their parental rights have been terminated, the case must be filed by the child's legal guardian.
Time Limits for Filing an Indiana Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death claim in Indiana must be filed within two years of the date the death occurred, according to Indiana's statute of limitations. If the claim is not filed within two years, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear the matter. The surviving family members would lose a valuable opportunity to pursue a judgment of liability and damages for the untimely death of their loved one.
The time limit does not change if the case involves the death of a child or if a criminal law case is proceeding at the same time.
Damages in Indiana Wrongful Death Cases
Liability in a wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of civil damages, which are intended to compensate the estate and surviving family members for losses related to the death. Indiana has very specific rules regarding what types of damages may be obtained in a wrongful death case, and what amounts are available.
Indiana allows the deceased person's estate, spouse, and children to recover the following damages if liability is established in a wrongful death case:
- funeral and burial expenses
- medical and hospital expenses
- lost wages and benefits the deceased would likely have earned if he or she had lived, and
- costs of pursuing the wrongful death suit.
Indiana does not allow damages to be paid in a wrongful death suit based on "grief" suffered by surviving family members. Also, damages in an Indiana wrongful death case are capped at $300,000.
Damages for medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses must be paid to the estate directly, and the estate is responsible for using these amounts to pay any outstanding medical, hospital, funeral, or burial bills. Damages for lost wages are divided among the surviving spouse and children.
If the deceased person is a child, the parents may recover damages for medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses, the costs of pursuing the wrongful death case, and damages for the loss of the child's services, love and companionship. They may also seek damages for the costs of counseling for parents or siblings who are struggling with the death.