In this article, we'll look at some key points of South Carolina law as it could affect a wrongful death lawsuit filed in the state's civil court system. We'll start with how the state defines a "wrongful death" and who may bring this kind of lawsuit to court. We'll also look at the different categories of damages available if a South Carolina wrongful death claim is successful, and the time limits for filing this kind of case.
How Does South Carolina Define "Wrongful Death"?
South Carolina Code of Laws section 15-51-10 defines a "wrongful death" as one that is caused by the “wrongful act, neglect, or default” of another. The wrongful act, neglect, or default that causes the death must be the type of action for which a personal injury claim could be filed if the deceased had lived.
In this way, it’s possible to think of a wrongful death lawsuit as a personal injury case in which the injured person is no longer available to file the claim for himself or herself. Instead, the claim must be brought to court by another party, which brings us to the next question.
Who May File a South Carolina Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In South Carolina, a wrongful death claim must be filed by the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate. The executor or administrator is often named in the deceased person’s estate plan. But if the deceased person has no estate plan, or if the named administrator cannot or does not wish to serve, the court may name an executor or administrator.
Although the executor or administrator is the one who brings the wrongful death claim to court, he or she actually pursues the claim on behalf of the deceased person’s surviving family members. The surviving family members who can recover damages in a South Carolina wrongful death case include:
- the surviving spouse and children of the deceased person
- the surviving parents of the deceased person, if there is no spouse or child, and
- the heirs at law of the deceased person, if there are no parents, spouse, or children.
Parents may recover in a wrongful death case even if their child was an adult at the time of death. However, a parent who abandoned a child before the child turned 18 may not recover in a wrongful death case involving the child’s death, even if the child was an adult at the time of death.
Damages in a South Carolina Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Liability in a wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of money damages. This is one key way in which a wrongful death case differs from a criminal charge for homicide, where conviction results in imprisonment, fines, or other penalties.
Damages that may be awarded in a successful wrongful death claim include compensation for:
- funeral and burial expenses
- medical bills and expenses related to the deceased person’s final illness or injury
- lost wages and benefits
- property damages and other financial losses related to the death
- loss of the deceased person’s experience, knowledge, and judgment
- loss of the deceased person’s care, companionship, and protection, and
- pain, suffering, and mental anguish suffered by the surviving family members.
If the conduct that caused the death was deliberate or reckless, the court may also award exemplary damages. Exemplary damages are also known as “punitive damages.” Unlike other types of damages, exemplary damages are not awarded to compensate the family or estate for losses resulting from the untimely death. Instead, exemplary damages are intended to punish wrongdoers and serve as a deterrent for others who might engage in similar conduct.
Time Limits in South Carolina Wrongful Death Cases
A wrongful death claim in South Carolina must be filed before the legal time limit, set by a “statute of limitations,” expires. In order to comply with the state's statute of limitations, the wrongful death lawsuit must be filed withinthree years of the date of the deceased person's death. A claim that is not filed within this time will not be heard by the court, so it's very important to make sure you comply with the three-year deadline.