Massachusetts has its own set of state laws governing wrongful death lawsuits. In this article, we'll look at several of those laws, starting with how the state defines "wrongful death" and who may file this kind of claim in the Massachusetts court system. We'll also look at the damages available if a wrongful death lawsuit succeeds, and the time limits for filing this kind of case.
Defining "Wrongful Death" in Massachusetts
Massachusetts law states that a person or company may be liable for wrongful death if the person or company causes the death of another by:
- negligence, or failing to exercise reasonable care
- a "wanton or reckless act," or
- a breach of warranty.
In all three cases, a wrongful death claim may be filed if the deceased person could have filed a personal injury case based on the same incident if he or she had lived.
In this way, a wrongful death claim resembles a standard personal injury claim. In both kinds of cases, the negligence, wantonness, recklessness, or breach of warranty of one party is said to have caused the injury of another. In a wrongful death case, however, the injured person is obviously no longer available to bring his or her own lawsuit to court. Instead, another party must bring the claim on behalf of the deceased person.
Massachusetts does not allow wrongful death claims against:
- an employer when an employee dies on the job
- a railroad when the deceased person was killed in an accident while on or near the train tracks, or
- a streetcar company when the deceased person was killed in an accident while on or near the tracks at any point where the tracks do not cross a road or sidewalk.
However, other legal claims against may still be available in the above-mentioned situations. A Massachusetts attorney can help explain your options.
Who May File a Massachusetts Wrongful Death Claim?
Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 229, Section 2 requires "the executor or administrator of the deceased" to file the wrongful death claim in court.
The executor or administrator is generally the person responsible for following any instructions left in the deceased person's will, for paying the deceased person's final debts, and for wrapping up the estate. Any damages recovered as a result of the wrongful death claim are paid to the deceased person's estate.
The executor or administrator may file a wrongful death claim even if a criminal case based on the same death is in progress. A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit, which means it must be filed by the executor or administrator directly, and any liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages. By contrast, a criminal case is filed by the state (through a local prosecutor's office), and culpability is punished with jail time, fines, probation, or other penalties.
Damages in a Massachusetts Wrongful Death Case
Damages in a Massachusetts wrongful death lawsuit may be available to compensate for:
- the value of the income the deceased could reasonably be expected to have earned in his or her lifetime
- the care, companionship, comfort, guidance, counsel, and advice the deceased would have provided to family members, and
- reasonable funeral and burial expenses.
Punitive damages may also be available in a Massachusetts wrongful death case, but only if the court finds the death was caused by "malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct" or gross negligence. Punitive damages are not less than $5,000, although higher amounts may be awarded based on the evidence presented in any particular wrongful death case.
Unlike damages for lost income, care, and funeral and burial expenses, punitive damages are not meant to compensate the family or the estate for the untimely loss of the deceased person. Instead, they are intended to punish the party that caused the death for particularly bad conduct, and to send a message to similar parties that such behavior will not be tolerated.
Time Limits for Filing a Massachusetts Wrongful Death Claim
A law known as a "statute of limitations" sets a deadline for filing a wrongful death claim in a Massachusetts court. Massachusetts requires any wrongful death claim to be filed within three years of the date of death -- or the date the executor or administrator first knew or should have known a wrongful death claim was available. Because this date is crucial to filing the case, it is important to consult an attorney in order to determine when the deadline falls in a specific case, and to make sure the wrongful death lawsuit gets properly prepared and filed before that date.