Each state has its own laws governing wrongful death lawsuits filed in the state's civil court system. In this article, we'll examine a few key points of New Jersey wrongful death law. We'll start by looking at how the state defines a "wrongful death," the time limits for filing a wrongful death claim, and who may file such a claim in a New Jersey court. Then, we'll look at the damages available if a wrongful death case succeeds.
How Does New Jersey Define "Wrongful Death"?
New Jersey defines a "wrongful death" as a death "caused by a wrongful act, neglect or default of another." The conditions that caused the death must be such that, if the deceased person had lived, he or she would have been able to bring a personal injury claim to court.
In this way, a wrongful death claim can be understood as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, another party must bring the claim on the deceased person's behalf.
New Jersey allows a wrongful death claim to be filed in civil court even if a related criminal case has also been filed. Because a wrongful death claim is a civil claim, it must be filed by the personal representative or beneficiaries directly, and liability in the case is expressed solely in terms of money damages. A criminal case, by contrast, is filed by the prosecuting attorney, and culpability is penalized with incarceration, probation, and other penalties.
Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim in New Jersey
New Jersey has a time limit, called a "statute of limitations," that requires wrongful death claims and other civil suits to be filed within a certain time period. A wrongful death case in New Jersey must be filed within two years of the date of the deceased person's death. If the claim is not filed within that two year window, it will almost certainly be barred from court entirely.
Because several factors can affect the running of the statute of limitations, if you are close to the two-year deadline it may be time to speak to an experienced New Jersey wrongful death attorney to make sure you are in compliance with the time limit.
Who May File a New Jersey Wrongful Death Claim?
A wrongful death claim in New Jersey is brought on behalf of the surviving family members. It is typically filed by the executor or personal representative of the estate. However, any damages recovered in the case are distributed to surviving family members who were actually dependent on the deceased person at the time of death, or who are entitled to inherit from the deceased person under New Jersey's inheritance laws.
Those who may receive a portion of the damages in a New Jersey wrongful death case include:
- the surviving spouse and children or grandchildren
- surviving parents of the deceased person
- any surviving siblings, nieces, or nephews of the deceased person, and
- any person who can demonstrate he or she was "actually dependent" on the deceased person.
Among family members, generally speaking, the surviving spouse or children come first. Only if there is no surviving spouse or child will surviving parents inherit, and only if there are no surviving parents can the siblings, nieces, or nephews of a deceased person receive damages in the wrongful death case.
Damages in a New Jersey wrongful death case are intended to compensate the estate and the surviving family members for their losses stemming from the passing of the deceased. Consequently, damages in a New Jersey wrongful death claim may be available for losses including:
- loss of financial support, based on the compensation the deceased could reasonably have been expected to earn if he or she had lived
- loss of companionship, care, comfort, and guidance
- loss of value of household services like cleaning, childcare, and other chores, and
- reasonable medical, funeral, and burial expenses related to the deceased's final illness or injury.
New Jersey law does not allow surviving family members to recover damages for emotional distress or to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death case. However, family members may be able to file a separate claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress in order to seek damages for severe emotional distress caused by the death if the surviving family member was present when the death occurred and suffered severe distress as a result. Learn more about Proving Liability in a Wrongful Death Case.