Indiana, like all other states, has its own laws governing wrongful death claims—including who can file a wrongful death lawsuit, what types of damages are possible if a wrongful death lawsuit is successful, and how long you have to file a wrongful death claim in the state's civil courts. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the main components of these laws.
Indiana's statutes define a wrongful death as one that was "caused by the wrongful act or omission of another" person or entity. (Indiana Code §§ 34-23-1-1, 34-23-1-2, and 34-23-2-1 (2021).) Many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
One way to understand a wrongful death claim is to think of it as a personal injury lawsuit in which the injured person has died and is no longer to bring a claim on his or her own behalf. Instead, someone else must step in and pursue the case for the deceased person. 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 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.
There are other differences between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit. For instance, 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. However, the criminal case is separate from any wrongful death claim. To obtain damages, the estate must file a wrongful death suit, even if a criminal case is already proceeding.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Indiana law determines who can bring a wrongful death claim differently depending on whether the person who died (the "decedent") was an adult or a child at the time of death.
Child decedents. In a wrongful death claim involving the death of a child, the case must be filed by one or both of the child's parents. If the parents are divorced, the claim must be filed by a parent who has legal custody of the child. If both parents are deceased or their parental rights have been terminated, the case must be filed by the child's legal guardian. For the purpose of a wrongful death claim, Indiana law defines a "child" as:
Adult decedents. In many states, the deceased person's family members are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. But in Indiana, only the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased adult's estate is permitted to file a wrongful death claim.
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Like other personal injury claims, wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within a certain period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." In Indiana, the filing deadline for a wrongful death claim is two years from the date of the person's death. The deadline is the same regardless of whether the deceased person was an adult or a child. If the claim is not filed within that two-year period, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear the matter at all.
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court will award "damages"—the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors or estate. Indiana has very specific rules regarding the types of damages that may be recovered in a wrongful death case, as follows.
Child decedents. If the deceased person was a child (as defined above), the court may award damages to compensate the child's family for the following types of losses:
If the deceased was an unmarried adult with no dependents. Indiana allows the deceased person's estate, parents, and/or nondependent children to recover the following damages in a successful wrongful death case:
Damages for medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses will be awarded to the estate to pay for those expenses; the remainder of the damages will be awarded to the deceased person's parent or nondependent child. Indiana law prohibits courts from awarding punitive damages, damages for grief, or damages to compensate for the deceased's future earnings. In addition, the deceased person's parents or nondependent child must prove that they had a "genuine, substantial, and ongoing relationship" with the deceased in order to recover damages.
If the deceased was married and/or has surviving dependents. Indiana law allows the deceased's survivors to recover damages to compensate for the following types of losses:
Damages for medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses will be given to the estate; all other damages will go to the deceased person's spouse, any dependent children, or other dependent relatives and will be distributed in the same manner as the decedent's personal property.
Learn more about the types of damages that might be available in a wrongful death case, and read the full text of Indiana's wrongful death statutes at Indiana Code §§ 34-23-1-1, et seq.
Wrongful death claims in Indiana can be complicated, and the law can change at any time. If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law applies to your specific situation.