In this article, we'll examine some key components of Maine law as it affects a wrongful death claim. We'll start with the state's definition of wrongful death and who may bring this kind of lawsuit to court. Then, we'll look at the damages that are available in a wrongful death claim. We'll finish with the time limits Maine sets on the filing of wrongful death claims in the state's civil courts.
Maine allows a wrongful death claim to be brought when the death of a person is caused by a "wrongful act, neglect, or default" of a kind that would have allowed the deceased person to bring a personal injury claim if he or she had lived. Wrongful death actions in Maine are covered by Maine Revised Statutes Title 18, Section 2-804.
In this way, a wrongful death claim is like a personal injury claim. In a wrongful death claim, however, the injured person is no longer available to bring the claim to court. Instead, another party must bring the claim on the deceased person's behalf.
In Maine, a wrongful death claim must be brought to court by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. Any damages awarded in the case are paid to the estate, which must distribute the appropriate amounts to the surviving family members or other beneficiaries (more on damages in the next section).
Although the personal representative must bring the claim to court, beneficiaries of the claim may include the surviving spouse, children, parents, and other family members of the deceased person, particularly if the family members were dependents of the deceased person.
A wrongful death claim is a civil case. It differs from a criminal case for homicide in two key ways. The first difference is in who brings the claim to court: a wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative directly, while the homicide case is filed by the prosecuting attorney's office. The second is in how culpability is addressed. In a wrongful death case, liability is addressed solely in terms of money damages, while in the criminal case, guilt is punished with imprisonment, fines, probation, or other penalties.
A wrongful death claim may be filed even if a homicide case is proceeding based on the same events. However, the personal representative would be wise to consult an attorney to determine how a wrongful death case may be affected by the ongoing criminal matter.
In Maine, damages in a wrongful death case are available for a long list of losses, including:
Maine differentiates between "pecuniary" and "non-pecuniary" damages in wrongful death cases. While pecuniary damages are not "capped," or limited, non-pecuniary damages cannot total more than $400,000. Courts differ on which damages count as "non-pecuniary," however, so consulting an attorney might be a good idea if you think your wrongful death case might involve significant monetary damages.
Maine's "immediacy" rule also affects how damages are evaluated in wrongful death claims. If death was caused "immediately" by the final injury or illness, certain types of damages are not available. These include damages for the pain and suffering endured by the deceased person in the final moments of life. It is assumed that if death occurred instantly, no pain or suffering occurred.
Maine law limits the amount of time available for filing a wrongful death claim. Specifically, Maine Revised Statutes Title 18, Section 2-804 requires that these lawsuits be filed in the state's court system no later than two years after the date of the deceased person's death.
A wrongful death claim that is filed after the two-year "window" has closed will almost certainly be thrown out by the court without a hearing, depriving the surviving family members and the estate of a valuable tool for ensuring accountability and compensation. So it is important to pay attention to the deadline.