Wrongful Death Lawsuits in the District of Columbia

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

Like the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia has its own rules governing  wrongful death lawsuits  that are filed in the district. In this article, we'll look at some of these laws, beginning with the definition of a "wrongful death" in Washington, D.C., and the rules on who may file a wrongful death lawsuit. We'll also look at the damages available in a D.C. wrongful death case and the time limits for bringing this kind of lawsuit to court.

How is "Wrongful Death" Defined in Washington, D.C.?

D.C. Code Section 16-2701 defines a "wrongful death" as an injury leading to the death of a person, "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person or corporation." The act that caused the death must be the kind that could have formed the basis for a personal injury action if the deceased person had lived. Car accidents, slip and fall injuries, defective products, and other situations may serve as the basis for a wrongful death suit.

Because personal injury and wrongful death are linked by the types of injuries that could give rise to these kinds of lawsuits, one way to think of a wrongful death claim is as a personal injury suit in which the injured person is no longer available to bring the suit on his or her own behalf. Instead, others must bring the claim to court on behalf of the injured person and also to get a civil remedy for their own losses in connection with the decedent's death.

Who May File a Washington, D.C. Wrongful Death Claim?

The personal representative of the deceased person's estate must file the wrongful death claim on behalf of the surviving spouse or domestic partner of the deceased person.

If there is no surviving spouse or domestic partner, the "next of kin" may file the wrongful death lawsuit in a D.C. court. Next of kin may include children, parents, or siblings.

If damages are awarded in the wrongful death claim and the deceased person had a will or other estate plan, they are paid to the estate, which distributes them to the spouse, domestic partner, children, parents, or other next of kin in proportion to the loss each suffered. If the deceased person died  intestate  (without a will), damages are allocated as follows:

  • entirely to the spouse, if there are no children or parents
  • two-thirds to the spouse, if there are children who also belong to the spouse, and the remainder to the children
  • one-half to the spouse, if there are children who belong to the deceased person but not the spouse, and the remainder to the children
  • three-quarters to the spouse, if there are no children but at least one surviving parent of the deceased person
  • entirely to the parents, if there are no spouse or children; and
  • entirely to the siblings, if there are no spouse, children, or parents.

Damages in a Washington, D.C. Wrongful Death Claim

Damages  in a wrongful death case filed in Washington, D.C. are set by the jury -- or by the judge if there is no jury -- based on the facts presented in the case. They are based on the injury suffered by the surviving spouse, domestic partner, and next of kin arising from the untimely loss of their family member, and they are distributed to the survivors, rather than paid to the estate.

Damages in a Washington, D.C. wrongful death case may include recovery of amounts for:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • medical bills, including emergency care, related to the deceased's last illness or injury
  • lost wages and benefits the deceased would likely have earned if he or she had lived until retirement,
  • other contributions the deceased would likely have made to support, care, companionship, and other services for his or her surviving family members.

There is no "cap," or limit, on the damages a family can recover in a Washington, D.C. wrongful death action. However, survivors in a wrongful death claim may not seek damages for sorrow, mental distress, grief, or the loss of love and affection.

Time Limits on Filing Washington, D.C. Wrongful Death Claims

Washington, D.C. has a law, called a "statute of limitations," that limits the amount of time survivors have to bring a lawsuit to court over a wrongful death. Until 2012, this deadline was set one year after the date of death. Since 2012, however, survivors have  two years  from the date of death to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

It's important to note that a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed even if there is also a criminal case proceeding based on the same facts. For instance, if a person loses his or her life in a car accident and the government files criminal charges against the other driver (for vehicular manslaughter or some other crime), a wrongful death claim may also be filed in civil court against the driver as well.

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