The right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Arkansas might arise when an accidental or intentional act results in a person's death. In this article, we'll examine several key aspects of the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Arkansas, including:
In Arkansas, a wrongful death is defined as a death that is "caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default" of another person, company, or corporation. (Ark. Code § 16-62-102 (2022).) That is, a wrongful death occurs when one person dies due to the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
In most personal injury lawsuits, the injured person brings his or her own case to court after suffering some type of harm. In a wrongful death case, however, the injured person (the deceased) is unable to file a claim on his or her own behalf. Instead, someone else must step in and bring the case to court.
In Arkansas, the personal representative (called "an executor" in some states) of the deceased person's estate must file a wrongful death lawsuit. If there is no personal representative—for instance, if the deceased person is a child who has no estate—then the law permits the deceased person's "heirs at law" to file the claim. In Arkansas, the following people are eligible heirs:
In a successful wrongful death case—as in other types of personal injury lawsuits—the defendant's liability 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 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 plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant's liability 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 one event 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.
In a successful wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are awarded to the deceased person's survivors to compensate them for the death. Under Arkansas law, the types of potential damages available in a wrongful death suit fall into two categories: damages awarded on behalf of the deceased person's family and damages awarded on behalf of the decedent's estate.
Damages awarded on behalf of the survivors of the deceased person (sometimes called the "family claim" in Arkansas) seek to compensate for losses the family suffered as a result of the death. Damages commonly paid in a family claim include:
Damages awarded on behalf of the deceased person's estate (the "estate claim") are intended to compensate for the losses the decedent suffered as a result of his or her death. In Arkansas, damages commonly awarded in an estate claim include:
Under Arkansas law, proceeds from a wrongful death claim do not become assets of the deceased person's estate. Damages will be paid directly to the deceased's family members, regardless of whether they are awarded under a family claim or an estate claim.
Some states cap the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a wrongful death suit, but Arkansas has no such limit. Learn more about damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
All wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within a certain period of time, set by a law called a statute of limitations. The statute of limitations for most wrongful death claims in Arkansas is three years from the date of the person's death. However, if the wrongful death claim is based on a health care provider's error, the state's two-year medical malpractice statute of limitations will apply. If the case is not filed within the applicable time period, surviving family members and the estate will very likely lose the right to file the case at all. (Ark. Code §§ 16-62-102, 16-114-203 (2022); Johnson v. Universal Health Services, Inc., 652 S.W.3d 581 (2022).)
Wrongful death cases can be complicated—and the law can change at any time. If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Arkansas, consider consulting a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can offer advice that's tailored to your specific situation.