Like other states, Utah has its own set of laws governing wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll take a close look at some of these laws, starting with how Utah defines a "wrongful death" and who may file this kind of lawsuit. We'll also examine the time limits for filing a wrongful death case in court, and the damages available if a wrongful death claim succeeds.
Defining "Wrongful Death" in Utah
Utah Code section 78B-3-106 describes a wrongful death as one that is caused by the "wrongful act, neglect, or default" of another party. The conduct that caused the death must be the sort that would support a personal injury claim.
Personal injury claims are similar to wrongful death claims in that both are based on an actionable injury. However, in a wrongful death case, the injured person is no longer able to bring his or her own claim to court, for obvious reasons. Instead, another party must bring the claim to court on behalf of the injured person and any family members who were harmed as a result of the untimely death -- which brings us to the next question.
Who May File a Wrongful Death Claim in Utah?
In Utah, a wrongful death claim must be filed by either the heirs of the deceased person or the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. If the deceased person was an adult under guardianship, the legal guardian may bring the wrongful death claim to court.
According to Utah Code section 78B-3-105, the "heirs" who may file a wrongful death claim include:
- the surviving spouse
- the surviving adult children
- the surviving parent or parents, including adoptive parents
- the surviving stepchildren, if they are under 18 at the time of death and were financially dependent on the deceased person, and
- other blood relatives as listed in Utah's inheritance laws.
Utah law presumes that one of the heirs will take on the job of personal representative, which is why this position is often called "presumptive personal representative" in the state. However, if the deceased person has an estate plan, it may name a personal representative. The named personal representative may also file a wrongful death claim.
Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Utah
No matter who files the wrongful death claim, it must be filed within the time limits set by law in order to be heard in court. The statute of limitations requires that wrongful death claims in Utah be filed within two years of the date of the decased's death, or within one year if the claim is filed against a government entity.
A wrongful death claim must be filed in a civil court by the personal representative directly. In this way, a wrongful death case differs from a criminal charge for homicide, which must be filed by the prosecuting attorney. A wrongful death claim may be filed even if a criminal case has already been filed or will be filed in connection with the death. Because a criminal case may affect how the statute of limitations applies in a wrongful death claim, however, it is wise to speak to an attorney with experience handling Utah wrongful death claims.
Damages in a Utah Wrongful Death Case
Damages in a wrongful death case are intended to compensate the heirs and the estate for losses related to the deceased person's death. According to Utah law, damages that may be recovered in a successful wrongful death case include:
- funeral and burial expenses
- medical expenses related to the deceased person's final injury or illness
- lost wages, including the value of future wages and benefits lost as a result of the untimely death
- pain and suffering endured by surviving family members as a result of the death
- loss of care, companionship, and guidance, and
- punitive damages.
Most of these types of damages focus on compensating the estate and family for economic and non-economic losses related to the death. Punitive damages, however, are different. Punitive damages are not awarded to compensate survivors or the estate for losses. Instead, they are awarded to punish intentional or reckless behavior. They are also meant to send a message that such conduct will not be tolerated by the court system.