When a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional action, the deceased person's family or estate could be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Georgia, like every other state, has a set of laws that apply to wrongful death claims. We'll look at several key aspects of these laws, including who is eligible to file a wrongful death claim in Georgia, what types of damages are available, and the time limits for filing this type of lawsuit in the state's civil courts.
Under Georgia law, a "wrongful death" occurs in "all cases in which the death of a human being results from a crime, from criminal or other negligence, or from property which has been defectively manufactured, whether or not as the result of negligence." (Ga. Code § 51-4-1 (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:
In a 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 or estate. 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 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.
Read 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 available to bring his or her own case to court. Instead, someone else must file the lawsuit on the deceased person's behalf, and Georgia law determines who is eligible to do so in the following order:
Under Georgia law, no other family member—such as a sibling or grandparent—is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the deceased; only the individuals listed above may file the claim. If an executor brings the claim, any damages recovered are held by the estate for the benefit of the deceased person's next of kin. (Ga. Code §§ 19-7-1, 51-4-2, 51-4-4, 51-4-5 (2021).)
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors or estate. In Georgia, there are two categories of losses that can be sought in a wrongful death claim. The first category seeks to compensate surviving family for the "full value of the life of the decedent," which can include both economic and intangible factors, such as:
The second category of damages is intended to compensate the deceased person's estate for financial losses related to the death. This claim must be brought by the deceased person's executor and can include compensation for:
(Ga. Code §§ 51-4-4, 51-4-5 (2021).)
Like other lawsuits, wrongful death claims must be filed within a certain period of time, set by a law known as a "statute of limitations." In most cases, Georgia wrongful death claims must be filed within two years from the date of the death. If the lawsuit is not filed within the two-year time period, the right to bring it is almost always lost. (Ga. Code § 9-3-33 (2021).)
It's important to note that the two-year clock can be "tolled"—or temporarily stopped—in the following situations.
If the death was the result of a crime. If a criminal case results from the same events as the wrongful death case, the statute of limitations on the wrongful death case is suspended until the criminal case is completed, up to a maximum of six years. The two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death begins to run on the date the criminal case is resolved. (Ga. Code § 9-3-99 (2021).)
When the deceased person's estate has not been probated. Georgia law allows the statute of limitations in wrongful death cases to be tolled for up to five years if the deceased person's estate is not probated. (Ga. Code § 9-3-92 (2021).)
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Georgia, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death claims can be complicated, and an experienced lawyer can explain how the state's laws apply to the circumstances of your case.