Like other states, Virginia has its own state laws that govern wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll look at a few of these laws. We'll start with an overview of Virginia's wrongful death law and the time limits for filing this kind of civil lawsuit in the state's court system. Then, we'll look at who may file such a claim and the types of damages that may be available if the claim succeeds.
Defining "Wrongful Death" in Virginia
Virginia Code section 8.01-50 defines a "wrongful death" as a death "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default" of another party. The circumstances of the death must be the kind that would have supported a personal injury action if the deceased person had lived.
In this way, a wrongful death claim can be thought of as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer able to bring is or her own case to court. Instead, one or more of the "statutory beneficiaries" must file the wrongful death claim.
Time Limits for Filing Virginia Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Virginia law requires wrongful death claims to be filed within two years of the date of the deceased person's death. If a wrongful death claim is not filed within two years, the state's "statute of limitations" bars it from being heard in court.
Who May File a Virginia Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In Virginia, a wrongful death claim must be filed by one or more of the "statutory beneficiaries," as defined by Virginia Code section 8.01-53. Statutory beneficiaries -- meaning family members or dependents of the deceased who may, by law, recover in a wrongful death claim -- include:
- the surviving spouse and children or grandchildren of the deceased person
- the surviving parents and siblings of the deceased, or any relative who shares the deceased person's household and is a dependent of the deceased, and
- any surviving family member entitled to inherit the deceased's estate under Virginia's intestacy laws.
Under Virginia's wrongful death law, the right to file a wrongful death claim follows a specific order. Surviving spouses, surviving children, and the surviving grandchildren have the initial right to file the claim. If there is no surviving spouse, child, or grandchild, the surviving parents, siblings, and dependents may file. If there is no surviving parent, sibling, or dependent, the right to file belongs to whomever would inherit next under Virginia's estate law.
If there is a surviving spouse and surviving parent(s), but no surviving children, the spouse and parent(s) may file the wrongful death claim together. Parents who are found to have abandoned the deceased during his or her childhood, however, may not file a wrongful death claim in Virginia, nor may they recover damages in a wrongful death claim.
Damages in a Virginia Wrongful Death Claim
Damages may be available in a wrongful death claim to compensate the family and the estate for a number of losses. Under Virginia Code section 8.01-52, damages in a wrongful death claim may include, but are not limited to compensation for:
- sorrow and mental anguish
- loss of the deceased's care, comfort, guidance, companionship, society, advice, and kindly offices
- the value of lost wages and benefits, including those wages and benefits the deceased might reasonably have been expected to earn if he or she had lived
- medical expenses related to the deceased's final illness or injury
- reasonable funeral and burial expenses, and
- punitive damages.
Most of the types of damages available in a Virginia wrongful death case are intended either to compensate the deceased person's estate for its losses suffered with the death, or to compensate surviving family members for their losses. However, punitive damages function differently.
The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the estate or family for loss. Instead, punitive damages are awarded to punish "willful or wanton" bad conduct, or recklessness that shows "a conscious disregard for the safety of others," according to Section 8.01-52.
Learn more about Damages in a Wrongful Death Case.
Getting Help from a Lawyer
If you are thinking about filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Virginia, or you would just like to learn more about your legal options, you might consider contacting an experienced Virginia wrongful death lawyer in your area.