In Alaska, 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 look at how Alaska defines wrongful death, who can file a wrongful death claim, the types of available damages, as well as the time limit on filing this type of lawsuit.
Under Alaska law, a wrongful death is defined as a death that results from a "wrongful act or omission of another." (Alaska Statutes § 09.55.580 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death claim can arise when one person dies due to the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
In Alaska, a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed in any situation where the deceased person could have brought a personal injury claim to court if he or she had lived. In many states, the deceased person's family members are allowed to bring a wrongful death claim. But in Alaska, the personal representative (called an "executor" in some states) of the deceased person's estate must file a wrongful death lawsuit. (Alaska Statutes § 09.55.580 (2021).)
The only exception is when the claim is for the wrongful death of a fetus. In that case, a parent may file the lawsuit. (Alaska Statutes § 09.55.585 (2021).)
Get more details about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
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 big difference between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: In criminal court, the state or federal government must establish the accused person's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt"—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, even when facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
In a successful wrongful death case, courts award "damages"—the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors. In Alaska, damages are intended to compensate for the financial and emotional losses caused by the person's death.
The types of potential damages in a wrongful death case—and in what amounts—will depend on the facts of each particular case. But Alaska's wrongful death law states that when determining the amount of the damages to award, the court will consider a number of factors, including:
In an Alaska wrongful death case, any damages awarded are intended to benefit the deceased person's surviving spouse, children, or other dependents. If the decedent has no surviving spouse, children, or dependents, the damages will be paid directly to the estate.
Many states, including Alaska, have placed limits on the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a wrongful death suit. State law caps noneconomic damages, intended to cover intangible losses like pain, suffering, and loss of consortium, at $400,000 or the deceased person's life expectancy in years multiplied by $8,000, whichever is greater. (Alaska Statutes § 09.17.010 (2021).)
On the other hand, Alaska law does not limit the amount of economic damages a court can award. Economic damages compensate survivors for the financial losses associated with the death, such as medical bills, funeral expenses, and any economic support the deceased person would have contributed to the family.
Wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law known as a statute of limitations. In Alaska, the filing deadline for a wrongful death lawsuit is two years from the date of the person's death. Cases that are not filed before the time limit expires will likely be barred from court entirely.
If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Alaska, 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.