When a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act, the deceased person's estate could be entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll examine the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Maine, including how the statutes define "wrongful death," who is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit, the potential damages available, and the time limit a plaintiff has to bring this type of case to court.
Maine law defines a "wrongful death" a death caused by a "wrongful act, neglect, or default" of a kind that would have allowed the deceased person to bring a personal injury claim if he or she had lived. (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 18-C, § 2-807 (2021).) Unlike in other types of personal injury lawsuits, in a wrongful death case the injured person is no longer able to bring the claim to court; instead, another party must bring it on the deceased person's behalf.
As with other kinds of personal injury cases, many different types of events can qualify as a "wrongful act, neglect, or default," including:
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 some states, the deceased person's family may file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Maine, however, only the personal representative or special administrator of the deceased person's estate is permitted to file a wrongful death claim.
Learn more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are awarded to the deceased person's survivors to compensate them for the death. In Maine, damages in a wrongful death case are available for a long list of losses, including:
Although the personal representative must bring the claim to court, any damages awarded in the case, after payment of funeral costs and attorneys' fees, must be distributed to surviving family members or other beneficiaries—unless the court awards damages to the estate specifically for the costs of medical, surgical, and hospital care.
Many states, including Maine, have placed limits on the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit. State law caps "non-pecuniary" damages, intended to cover intangible losses like the loss of care, society, and companionship or emotional distress, at $750,000. In addition, punitive damages, intended to punish the defendant and deter other parties from engaging in similar behavior, are capped at $250,000.
On the other hand, Maine law does not limit the amount of "pecuniary" damages a court can award. Pecuniary damages compensate the estate or survivors for the financial losses associated with the death, such as medical bills, funeral expenses, and any economic support the deceased person would have contributed to the family.
One other thing to note: If the death followed a period of "conscious suffering," the court may award additional damages to compensate for this period of suffering.
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 called a "statute of limitations." The statute of limitations that applies to most wrongful death claims in Maine sets a filing deadline of two years from the date of the person's death. If the death was due to homicide, however, the deceased's personal representative has six years from the date he or she knew that there is a cause of action against the person who caused the death. If the case is not filed within the appropriate time period, the court will very likely refuse to hear the case at all. (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 18-C, § 2-807 (2021).)
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 Maine, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply to the circumstances of your case.