Each state has its own laws that govern wrongful death claims. This article examines some key aspects of Vermont law that could impact this kind of lawsuit. We'll start with the definition of a "wrongful death" in Vermont. Then, we'll look at who may file a wrongful death lawsuit in the state, the damages that are available if the case succeeds, and the time limits for getting the lawsuit filed.
What is a "Wrongful Death" in Vermont?
Title 14 of the Vermont Statutes contains many of the state's key laws governing wrongful death claims. Chapter 71, Section 1491 states that a wrongful death is a death resulting from the "wrongful act, neglect, or default of another." An action for wrongful death may be brought to court in any situation where, if the deceased person had lived, he or she could have brought a claim for personal injury. Instead, the personal representative of the deceased person's estate must file the claim on the deceased person's behalf.
Vermont's wrongful death law allows the personal representative to file a wrongful death claim even if a case is proceeding in criminal court on the same facts. Wrongful death claims differ from criminal homicide cases in two key ways. First, a wrongful death claim is a civil claim, which means the personal representative must file it directly. A criminal case is filed by the prosecuting attorney's office. Second, liability in a wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of money damages, while guilt in a criminal case is punished with imprisonment, probation, and other penalties.
Who May File a Vermont Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
14 VSA Section 1492 requires the personal representative of the deceased person's estate to file the wrongful death claim.
However, damages in a wrongful death claim may be awarded for the benefit of surviving family members, as well as to compensate the losses of the estate itself.
If the deceased person had an estate plan, he or she has probably named a personal representative as part of that plan. However, if the deceased person did not have an estate plan or the named personal representative cannot or does not wish to serve, the court will appoint a personal representative.
Damages in a Vermont Wrongful Death Case
In Vermont, wrongful death damages are recovered for the benefit of the deceased person’s surviving spouse and next of kin. The damages are distributed according to the amount of harm suffered by each surviving family member as a result of the deceased person’s death. The specific amounts are determined by the court.
If the deceased person left a surviving spouse but no children, damages awarded in the wrongful death claim are distributed to the spouse.
If there is no surviving spouse or children, but there are surviving parents, the parents receive the damages awarded. However, a parent who has abandoned a child cannot recover damages in that child’s death. Likewise, a spouse who has abandoned another spouse may not recover damages in a wrongful death case if the abandoned spouse dies.
Damages available in a Vermont wrongful death claim include compensation for:
- funeral and burial expenses
- medical expenses for treating the deceased person’s final illness or injury
- compensation for the loss of services performed by the deceased, such as household chores and repairs, and
- loss of love, companionship, care, nurture, protection, and the loss of a parent-child relationship.
Time Limits for Filing a Vermont Wrongful Death Claim
Vermont’s statute of limitations sets a limit on the amount of time available to file a wrongful death claim in court. In Vermont, a wrongful death claim must be filed within:
- two years of the return of the defendant to the state of Vermont, if the defendant is not within the state,
- two years of the date of conviction in a criminal case filed on the same facts, or seven years from the date the criminal charges were filed, and
- two years of the date of death in all other cases.
If the claim is not filed within the deadline, the court will refuse to hear it, so it is crucial to understand how the statute of limitations applies to your Vermont wrongful death case. If you think you might be running up against the filing deadline, it's time to contact a Vermont wrongful death lawyer to make sure your legal options are preserved.