In Alabama, when a person dies as a result of another party’s accidental or intentional action, the deceased person’s estate could be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll examine several key aspects of the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Alabama, including:
Alabama law defines a "wrongful death" as one that is caused by the "wrongful act, omission, or negligence" of another. (Alabama Code §§ 6-5-391 and 6-5-410 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death occurs when one person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
As in other types of personal injury lawsuits, the defendant’s liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation (“damages”) that the court orders the defendant to pay to the deceased person’s survivors. This is one major difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide case, where a conviction can result in jail or prison time, fines paid to the state, probation, and other penalties.
Another major difference between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: In a criminal case, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability must be shown only "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the death. It is possible, though, for a single act to result in criminal charges and a wrongful death claim: A defendant can be sued for wrongful death in civil court while facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Unlike in other types of personal injury cases, the injured person in a wrongful death case (the deceased) is no longer able to seek compensation from the party that caused the injury; someone else must step in to seek compensation on his or her behalf. Alabama law determines who can bring a wrongful death claim differently depending on whether the person who died (the “decedent”) was an adult or a minor at the time of death.
Adult decedents. In many states, the deceased person’s family members are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. But in Alabama, only the personal representative (called an “executor” in some states) of the deceased person's estate is permitted to file a wrongful death claim.
Minor decedents. If the decedent was a minor (defined in Alabama as someone younger than 19 years of age), the law gives his or her mother or father six months from the date of the child’s death to bring a wrongful death suit. After that six-month period expires, the minor’s personal representative must file the claim.
Learn more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
"Damages" are the plaintiff's claimed losses in a personal injury case, and they often fall into two categories: compensatory damages and punitive damages. In most states, courts award compensatory damages to the decedent’s family in order to compensate them for the financial and emotional loss caused by the decedent’s death. Compensatory damages are often awarded to cover funeral costs, medical bills, and other expenses resulting from the person’s death.
Alabama, however, handles damages in wrongful death suits differently. The state’s Supreme Court has held that courts may award only punitive damages in wrongful death cases. Punitive damages, like compensatory damages, are awarded to the decedent’s survivors, but the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant and deter other parties from engaging in similar behavior. In other words, while most states focus on the loss of the deceased person's life and seek to compensate the person’s survivors for that loss, Alabama wrongful death law focuses on the wrongdoing of the defendant.
Some states cap the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a wrongful death suit, but Alabama has no such limit. Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law known as a statute of limitations. In Alabama, the filing deadline for a wrongful death lawsuit is two years from the date of the person’s death. (Alabama Code § 6-2-38 (2021).)
If you’re thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Alabama, consider consulting a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death cases can be complicated, and a lawyer who is experienced in this area can explain how the law might apply to your specific situation.