The right to file a wrongful death lawsuit might arise when a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional action. Like every other state, Minnesota has laws that applies to wrongful death claims. We'll look at several key parts of these laws, including who can file a wrongful death claim in Minnesota, the types of damages that might be available, and the time limit on filing this type of lawsuit in the state's civil courts.
Minnesota law states that a wrongful death is a death "caused by the wrongful act or omission of any person or corporation" under circumstances where the person could have filed a personal injury lawsuit had he or she lived. (Minn. Stat. § 573.02 (2021).) So it can be helpful to think of a wrongful death claim as a personal injury claim in which the injured person (the deceased) is no longer able to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, someone else must step in and file a wrongful death on his or her behalf.
As with a personal injury claim, many types of events can be the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
In a successful wrongful death case—as in other types of personal injury lawsuits—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.
There are other differences between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit. For one, in a criminal case, the state or federal government must establish the accused person's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is 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 while facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Many states permit the deceased person's surviving family or the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the decedent's estate to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Minnesota, however, does things a bit differently. Minnesota law requires the deceased person's surviving spouse or next of kin to petition the court to appoint a "trustee" who will file the lawsuit and oversee the distribution of any damages awarded in the lawsuit (more on damages, below). Only the trustee may file the wrongful death suit; the court will most likely dismiss any claim brought by a family member of the decedent.
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 or estate to compensate for injuries suffered in connection with the death. In Minnesota, although a trustee must file the lawsuit, any damages awarded will be paid to the deceased person's surviving spouse and next of kin in proportion to the loss each person suffered.
Damages in a Minnesota wrongful death case can include compensation for the following categories of losses:
(Learn more about damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.)
All states have laws called "statutes of limitations" that set time limits on filing a wrongful death lawsuit in court. In Minnesota, the deadline for filing most wrongful death claims is three years from the date of the deceased person's death, but no later than six years after the event that cause the underlying injury. If the claim is not filed within that time period, the court will likely refuse to hear it at all.
Note that there are a few exceptions, including:
(Minn. Stat. § 573.02 (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 Minnesota, consider consulting a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply to your specific situation.