Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Rhode Island

Learn about wrongful death claims in Rhode Island -- what they are, who can sue, and what damages are recoverable.

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Each state has its own rules for resolving wrongful death lawsuits. In this article, we examine a few Rhode Island laws that could affect a wrongful death case in the state. We'll begin with Rhode Island's definition of "wrongful death" and who may file a wrongful death claim in the state's court system. Then, we'll look at the damages available if a wrongful death claim succeeds, and the time limits for filing this kind of case in court.

How Does Rhode Island Define "Wrongful Death"?

Rhode Island General Laws section 10-7-1 defines a "wrongful death" as one that is "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another." The party that causes a wrongful death may be either an individual or a company.

The act, neglect, or default that led to the death must be the type of action that would support a personal injury claim if the injured person had survived. In this way, a wrongful death claim can be understood as a personal injury lawsuit in which the deceased person is no longer able to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, another party must bring the claim to court in order to seek compensation for the estate and for the surviving family members.

A wrongful death claim may be filed in Rhode Island even if a criminal charge for homicide has been filed. A wrongful death claim differs from a homicide charge in a few key ways. A criminal charge is filed by the prosecuting attorney, while the wrongful death claim must be filed by the executor or administrator of the deceased person's estate. Also, guilt in a criminal case is penalized with imprisonment or other penalties, while liability in a wrongful death case may be expressed solely in terms of money damages.

Who May File a Rhode Island Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

According to Rhode Island General Laws section 10-7-2, the executor or administrator of the deceased person's estate must bring the wrongful death claim to court. If the deceased person does not have an estate plan, or if the executor or administrator named in the estate plan cannot or does not wish to serve, the court will appoint an administrator.

Although the administrator is responsible for pursuing the wrongful death claim in court, the claim itself is actually established for the benefit of the surviving family members. The surviving family members are given a specific order of preference in the wrongful death claim, based on Rhode Island law:

  • if the deceased person has a surviving spouse and children, any damages awarded in the claim go to the spouse and children
  • if there is a spouse, but no child, any damages awarded go to the spouse
  • if there is no spouse and no child, the damages are distributed to the heirs at law, which may include the parents, grandchildren, or other parties.

If there is no executor or administrator, the surviving family members may file the wrongful death claim. The surviving family members may also file the claim if the executor or administrator does not file it within six months of the date of death.

However, a parent may not recover damages in a wrongful death suit for a child's death if the parent is six months or more behind in paying child support. In this case, the court treats the parent as if he or she died before the child did.

Damages in a Rhode Island Wrongful Death Claim

Damages in a wrongful death case in Rhode Island are intended to compensate the estate and the surviving family members for several types of losses that may arise from a wrongful death. Damages may be available for losses including:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • medical expenses related to the final injury or illness of the deceased
  • lost wages and benefits, including the value of wages and benefits the deceased would reasonably have been expected to earn if he or she had lived
  • property damaged in the events surrounding the death
  • loss of care, companionship, and guidance the deceased provided to surviving family members
  • pain and suffering, and
  • punitive damages.

Punitive damages differ from compensatory damages in one key way. Unlike compensatory damages, which seek to compensate the family, punitive damages are awarded to punish particularly bad behavior, like intentional or reckless wrongdoing. Punitive damages are not available in all Rhode Island wrongful death cases.

Time Limits for Filing a Rhode Island Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Under Rhode Island General Laws section 10-7-2, a wrongful death claims must be filed within three years of the deceased person's death. However, if the occurrence of the wrongful act that caused the death could not be discovered on the date of the death, the claim may be filed within three years of the date on which the wrongful act actually was -- or should reasonably have been -- discovered.

Wrongful death claims that are filed in court after the statute of limitations has expired will be dismissed without a hearing, so it's crucial to know how the filing deadline applies to your case.

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