When a loved one dies, it can take an enormous emotional toll and cause financial hardship for surviving family members. When the death was the result of someone else's negligent or intentional act, there may be a legal remedy for survivors:
- Wrongful death laws in every state allow loved ones or estate representatives to bring a lawsuit against whoever caused the deceased person's death.
- It's important to understand the kinds of losses ("damages" in the language of the law) that might be compensated in these kinds of cases, and those that typically won't be.
- State law will usually dictate the types of wrongful death damages that are available to different individuals when a wrongful death lawsuit is successful.
What Is a Wrongful Death Claim?
A civil action brought when one person dies due to someone else's harmful act is called a "wrongful death" claim. In these kinds of lawsuits:
- the plaintiff (who is filing the case) is usually a close family member of the deceased person, or the administrator of the deceased person's estate, and
- the defendant (who is being sued) is the person, business, or other entity that allegedly caused the deceased person's death.
Each state has its own specific set of laws governing wrongful death claims, including who can file a wrongful death lawsuit, and the various types of losses (damages) that can be recovered.
What Damages Can I Receive In a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The kinds of damages that are available in a wrongful death case vary from state to state (and can overlap with a related "survival" action brought after a loved one's death), but compensation for a fairly wide variety of losses is often possible. Let's look closer at the possibilities.
Non-Economic Damages In a Wrongful Death Case
These kinds of losses—which are subjective and often difficult to capture with a dollar figure—typically include:
- anguish or "pain and suffering" experienced by the deceased person from the moment of the accident or wrongdoing, until the time of the decedent's death
- "loss of consortium" or "loss of emotional support" experienced by a spouse or immediate family members, who have been deprived of the deceased person's love, companionship, and support, and
- loss of instruction and guidance the deceased would have provided to any surviving children.
Note that some (but not most) states (including Florida and Illinois) specifically allow certain family members to receive compensation for their own mental pain and suffering or grief stemming from a loved one's death.
Financial/Economic Damages In a Wrongful Death Case
These losses are easier to capture with a dollar figure (compared with non-economic damages), but they often require the input of qualified financial/economics experts:
- medical expenses resulting from the injury or illness that caused the death
- lost financial support that would have been provided to family members by the deceased person had they lived (awards of future support will likely be reduced to present cash value)
- family members' lost inheritance (what the deceased person would have saved and left to surviving family members), and
- funeral and burial expenses.
Punitive Damages In a Wrongful Death Case
In most states, punitive damages are an option in a wrongful death lawsuit if the defendant (the person or entity being sued for wrongful death) acted recklessly or intentionally in connection with the death. Punitive damages are awarded to the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit), but they're meant to punish the wrongdoer.
Who Can Be Awarded Damages In a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In determining what types of damages will be awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit, a court will look to the specifics of the wrongful death laws in the state, and may need to interpret those laws as part of an analysis of the deceased's relationships with the different surviving family members. But typically, wrongful death damages can be awarded to:
- Spouses – The surviving spouse usually has a claim for the lost companionship that resulted from the deceased's death, as well as for the financial impact of the spouse's death
- Children – Minor children (but usually not adult children) may also be awarded damages for the lost benefits of their relationship with the deceased parent, including comfort and support, in addition to the financial damages caused by the death
- Parents – Parents of a minor child who has passed away (but usually not parents of adult children) can also recover damages for their emotional trauma and the lost relationship with the child; loss of financial support may also be possible, depending on the circumstances.
Are There Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Yes. The rules of each state specify when a wrongful death lawsuit needs to be filed, under a law called a statute of limitations. Two years from the date of the decedent's death is a fairly common deadline, but you can get the details on wrongful death laws where you live (including the statute of limitations lawsuit time limit) in our State Wrongful Death Laws article collection.
How Much Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Worth?
There's no reliable data to offer when it comes to the average value of a wrongful death case. Claim value depends on a whole host of very case-specific factors, including:
- the deceased person's age, income, and earning capacity when they died, in light of their life expectancy and other variables
- the age of the plaintiff and the nature of their relationship with the deceased person, and
- the specifics of the state's wrongful death law, when it comes to who can recover what.
Getting Help With Your Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death claim isn't the kind of legal matter you want to try handling on your own. Not only are these kinds of cases often emotionally charged, they also require the ability to:
- interpret your state's laws
- assemble the necessary proof (often including complex economic evidence) to make your best case, and
- fight until you get a fair result
That makes it essential to have the right legal professional on your side, whose experience and expertise will be crucial in getting fair compensation for the entire spectrum of harm resulting from the loss of a loved one. Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer.