When a person dies as a result of another party's intentional or accidental act, the deceased person's survivors could be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This article examines some key points of Hawaii's laws governing wrongful death claims, including who is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit, what damages may be available if the lawsuit succeeds, and the time limits for filing a wrongful death claim under the state's statute of limitations.
In Hawaii, a "wrongful death" is defined as any death "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default" of another person or entity. (Haw. Rev. Stat § 633-3 (2021).) Many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death claim, including:
A wrongful death claim is similar to a personal injury claim in that both types of claims depend on some harm being caused to one person by the negligence, wrongful act, or default of another. In a wrongful death case, however, the injured person is no longer available to bring the claim to court; instead, another person must file the lawsuit on the deceased person's behalf. (More on that below.)
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 civil 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 civil lawsuit: In criminal court, the accused's guilt must be established "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. (Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.)
Note that it is possible 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.
Hawaii law states that the following people are eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit:
In addition, the deceased person's legal representative can file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate to recover "reasonable expenses" related to the decedent's last illness or injury and burial.
Read more about who can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
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.
As noted above, the legal representative of the estate may seek damages to compensate for the "reasonable expenses of the deceased's last illness and burial," such as funeral costs and medical care.
Family members and dependents may seek damages directly related to their economic losses, including the lost wages and benefits the deceased would have provided. Survivors can also seek noneconomic damages to compensate for "loss of love and affection," including:
With the exception of funeral and burial expenses, any damages recovered in a wrongful death case are paid directly to the beneficiaries and do not become part of the deceased person's estate.
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 bringing a wrongful death lawsuit in Hawaii is two years from the date of death. If the case is not filed within two years, the court will almost certainly dismiss the lawsuit. (Haw. Rev. Stat § 633-3 (2021).)
Wrongful death claims can be complicated, and the law can change at any time. If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Hawaii, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply in your specific case.