All states, including Massachusetts, have laws governing wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll look at some key components of these laws, including:
Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 229, § 2 states that a "wrongful death" is a death caused by negligence, a "willful, wanton, or reckless act," or breach of warranty. 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:
Under Massachusetts law, a wrongful death claim may be filed in any situation where the deceased person could have filed a personal injury lawsuit if he or she had lived. As in other types of personal injury lawsuits, in a successful wrongful death case the defendant's liability 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.
Another big difference between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: 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.
It's important to note that Massachusetts law does not allow a wrongful death claim against:
However, other legal remedies could still be available in those cases; an experienced Massachusetts attorney can help explain your options.
Some states permit the deceased's surviving family members to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Massachusetts, though, only the executor or administrator of the deceased person's estate can file the wrongful death claim. The executor or administrator is typically the person named in the deceased person's will (or appointed by the court if the person left no will) who is responsible for paying the deceased person's final debts, wrapping up the estate—and handling any wrongful death claim.
Read 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 family to compensate them for the death. In Massachusetts, damages in a wrongful death case can be awarded to survivors for a long list of losses, including:
Damages can also be awarded for "conscious suffering" experienced by the deceased as a result of the illness or injury that caused the death. Any damages for suffering become assets of the deceased person's estate. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 229, § 6 (2021).)
In addition, punitive damages may be available in a Massachusetts wrongful death case, but only if the court finds the death was caused by "malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct" or gross negligence. Unlike damages for lost income, care, suffering, and funeral expenses, punitive damages are not meant to compensate the family or the estate for the loss of the deceased person. Instead, they are intended to punish the defendant and to deter other parties from engaging in similar conduct.
Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
A wrongful death case must be filed in court within a certain period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for most wrongful death claims is three years from:
(Note that other time limits might apply if the death was the result of medical malpractice.)
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Massachusetts, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death cases can be complicated, and an experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply to your specific situation.