This article examines some key aspects of Oregon law that could affect a wrongful death claim filed in the state's court system. We'll start by examining how the state defines wrongful death, and who may file a wrongful death lawsuit. Next, we'll look at the kinds of damages that are available if a wrongful death claim succeeds. We'll wrap up this article by discussing the time limits for bringing this kind of lawsuit to court.
How is "Wrongful Death" Defined in Oregon?
Oregon Revised Statutes section 30.020 defines a "wrongful death" as a death "caused by the wrongful act or omission of another." Typically, a wrongful death is one that is caused by a negligent, reckless, or intentional act -- the same sorts of actions that would support a claim for personal injury if the deceased person had lived.
In this way, it is possible to think of a wrongful death claim as a personal injury claim. The primary difference is that the injured person in a wrongful death claim is no longer available to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, another party must bring the wrongful death claim on behalf of the deceased person's estate and any surviving beneficiaries.
Who May File an Oregon Wrongful Death Claim?
Because the deceased person is no longer available to file his or her own legal claim, another party must file the lawsuit in court. Typically, the person who brings the wrongful death claim to court in Oregon is a family member.
In most cases, the family member who files the claim is a surviving spouse, child, or parent of the deceased person. However, other family members in Oregon are also allowed to bring wrongful death claims to court. These include the surviving grandparents, stepchildren, or stepparents -- all individuals who may also recover damages in a wrongful death claim.
A wrongful death claim is a civil suit, which means that it differs from a criminal case in two key ways. First, the wrongful death claim must be filed by a surviving family member directly, while the criminal case is filed by the prosecuting attorney employed by the jurisdiction where the death occurred. Second, liability in a wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of money damages, whereas a criminal conviction for homicide is penalized by imprisonment, probation, and other penalties.
Damages in an Oregon Wrongful Death Case
Damages in an Oregon wrongful death case are intended to compensate the estate and the surviving family members for losses related to the deceased person's death. They include compensation for losses like:
- funeral and burial expenses
- medical and hospital expenses related to the deceased person's final injury or illness
- lost wages and benefits, including the value of compensation the deceased person would reasonably have earned in the future if he or she had continued to live
- compensation for pain and suffering the deceased endured just prior to death, and
- loss of care, companionship, comfort, and guidance suffered by the surviving family members as a result of the untimely loss of a family member.
In cases involving extreme negligence or intentional behavior on the part of the defendant, punitive damages may also be awarded.
Unlike other types of damages, which are intended to compensate the estate and survivors, punitive damages are not awarded to make up for some kind of specific loss. Instead, punitive damages are intended to punish particularly bad behavior. They are also typically awarded to send a message that extremely negligent or intentional wrongdoing will not be tolerated by society.
Punitive damages may be awarded in a wrongful death case even if a criminal conviction has already been entered in a homicide case based on the same facts.
Learn more about Different Types of Damages in a Personal Injury Case.
Time Limits in Oregon Wrongful Death Claims
Like other states, Oregon has a time limit, or "statute of limitations," that limits the time available to file a wrongful death case in court. In Oregon, a wrongful death claim must be filed within three years of the date of the deceased person's final injury.
Since the date of death is not controlling for purposes of Oregon's law, if a significant amount of time passes between the date of final injury and the decedent's passing, the time to file a wrongful death claim may be shorter than expected. If you have questions about how the time limit applies to your case, or if you are running up against the filing deadline, it may be time to speak to an experienced Oregon wrongful death attorney.