When a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act, the deceased person's family could be entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll examine the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Kansas, including how the statutes define "wrongful death," who is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit, the potential damages available, and the time limit for bringing this type of case to court.
Under Kansas law, a "wrongful death" occurs when "the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act or omission of another." In addition, the statute says that a wrongful death claim can be brought in any situation where the deceased could have brought a personal injury claim had he or she lived. (Kan. Stat. § 60-1901 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death case can be thought of as a type of personal injury lawsuit in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own case to court; instead another party must step in and file the claim on behalf of the deceased person.
A wrongful death lawsuit can arise from many different circumstances, including:
In Kansas, a wrongful death claim may be filed against either the party that allegedly committed the wrongful act or against the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of that party's estate if he or she is deceased. For instance, if a death is caused by a car accident, the wrongful death claim may be filed against the driver who caused the accident. If the driver responsible for the crash also lost his or her life, the claim may be filed against that driver's estate.
Kansas law allows any of the deceased's "heirs at law" who has suffered a loss as a result of the death to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In most cases, this means that one of the following individuals will likely file the wrongful death lawsuit:
In Kansas, any damages awarded in a wrongful death case (more on that below) are for the benefit of all eligible heirs, regardless of whether they joined the lawsuit. (Kan. Stat. § 60-1902 (2021).)
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 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 for homicide and a wrongful death 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. 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, even when facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
In a wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are typically divided into two categories: economic (sometimes called "pecuniary") and noneconomic. Economic damages are paid to the deceased person's survivors to cover financial losses associated with the death, while noneconomic damages are intended to compensate for the intangible losses suffered by the deceased person's family. In Kansas, noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases are limited, or "capped," at $250,000, but there is no cap on economic damages.
Some common types of damages awarded in Kansas include money to compensate for:
As noted above, the court will award damages to all eligible heirs, regardless of whether they joined the lawsuit, in proportion to the loss each person suffered as a result of the death.
Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case, and read the full text of Kansas's wrongful death law at Kan. Stat. §§ 60-1901 to 60-1906.
Like all states, Kansas has a law that limits the amount of time you have to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This law, called a "statute of limitations," states that you have two years from the date of the person's death to bring the claim. If you try to file your lawsuit after this two-year deadline expires, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear the case. (Kan. Stat. § 60-513(a)(5) (2021).)
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Kansas, 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 law might apply to your specific case.