A deceased person's family or estate could have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Iowa when an accidental or intentional act causes the death. In this article, we'll examine several key aspects of the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Iowa, including:
In Iowa, as in most states, a wrongful death claim arises when one person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity. A wrongful death claim can be brought in any situation where the person could have brought a personal injury claim had he or she survived. So, it can be helpful to think of a wrongful death case as a type of personal injury lawsuit, in which the injured person is no longer available to pursue his or her own case in court and another party must step in and file the claim on behalf of the deceased person.
Many types of events can be the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
As in other types of personal injury lawsuit, in a wrongful death claim the defendant's liability is expressed only in terms of financial compensation ("damages") that the court orders the defendant to pay to the deceased person's surviving family or estate. By contrast, in a criminal case, a conviction can result in jail or prison time, probation, or other penalties.
There are other differences between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit. For instance, 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.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
In some states, the deceased person's surviving family members are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Iowa, however, the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") 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 or the person died without a will—then the court will appoint someone to act as personal representative.
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 Iowa, the types of damages paid depend on the particular facts of the case, but the court will determine the amount based on several categories of losses, including:
Learn more about the types of damages that might be available in a wrongful death case, and read the full text of Iowa's wrongful death statutes at Iowa Code §§ 613.15, 613.15A, and 633.336.
Most wrongful death claims in Iowa must be filed within two years of the date of the death, a period of time set by a law called a "statute of limitations." If the claim is not filed before the statute of limitations expires, the court will likely refuse to hear the case. (Iowa Code § 614.1 (2021).)
Note that there may be exceptions to this filing deadline when the death was the result of medical malpractice. Get more information about the statutes of limitations for medical malpractice in Iowa.
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 Iowa, consider consulting a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can offer advice that's tailored to your specific situation.