Kentucky, like every other state, has a set of laws that apply to wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll examine some of the main elements of Kentucky's wrongful death statutes. We'll look at how Kentucky law defines wrongful death, discuss who is eligible to file a wrongful death case, and cover the types of damages available in a wrongful death claim. And, finally, we'll discuss the time limits for filing this type of lawsuit in court.
Under Kentucky law, a "wrongful death" occurs when "the death of a person results from an injury inflicted by the negligence or wrongful act of another." In other words, a wrongful death claim can arise when one person dies due to the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
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 seek compensation from the party that caused the injury. Instead, someone else must step in and bring the claim on the deceased's behalf. 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 many states, the deceased's family can file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Kentucky, however, the personal representative (sometimes called "the executor") of the deceased person's estate must file the claim in most cases. 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.
Note that there are exceptions, including:
(Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 411.130, 411.135, 411.150 (2021).)
Get more details about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
"Damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—in a successful wrongful death case are intended to compensate the estate and the surviving family members for their loss. In a typical Kentucky wrongful death case, the court will award damages as follows:
Kentucky law specifies that the deceased's survivors will recover damages in a wrongful death case in the following order:
A surviving spouse must file a separate claim if he or she is seeking "loss of consortium" damages. In Kentucky, "consortium" includes the services, assistance, aid, society, companionship, and conjugal relationship that the deceased spouse would have provided to the surviving spouse.
Kentucky allows punitive damages to be awarded in wrongful death cases caused by an intentional act or by gross negligence. Unlike other types of damages, punitive damages are not intended to compensate the estate or surviving family members for their losses. Instead, punitive damages are awarded to punish particularly bad conduct and to deter other individuals from acting in an intentionally harmful or grossly negligent manner. (Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 411.130, 411.145 (2021).)
Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within a certain period of time, set by a law known as a "statute of limitations." In Kentucky, the statute of limitations that applies to wrongful death claims sets a filing deadline of:
It's important to keep in mind that if you try to file your wrongful death lawsuit after the filing window has closed, the court is almost certain to dismiss the case. (Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 413.140, 413.180 (2021).)
Wrongful death cases are often complicated—and the law can change at any time. If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Kentucky, consider consulting a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can offer advice that's tailored to your specific situation.