When a person dies as a result of another party's intentional or accidental act, the deceased person's survivors could be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll examine some key points of Missouri's laws governing wrongful death claims, including:
Missouri law defines a "wrongful death" as a death that results "from any act, conduct, occurrence, transaction, or circumstance which, if death had not ensued, would have entitled such person to recover damages in respect thereof." (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.080 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death claim can be filed against a person or company whose negligent or intentional actions cause the death of another person. In Missouri, a wrongful death claim can be brought in any situation in which the deceased could have filed a personal injury lawsuit had he or she lived. In a wrongful death case, though, the deceased's survivors must step in and seek compensation on the deceased person's behalf.
Like personal injury claims in general, many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death claim, 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 (or "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 a single 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.
Missouri has specific rules regarding who is allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the state's civil courts. First in line to bring such a claim are the deceased person's surviving spouse, parents, children, or, if the children are deceased, the children's descendants. If no one from the first category survives, then a surviving sibling or his or her descendants may file the wrongful death lawsuit. If no one from either category survives, the court will appoint a "plaintiff ad litem" to handle the claim. A plaintiff ad litem must be requested by a person "entitled to share in the proceeds" of a successful wrongful death claim. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.080 (2021).)
Read more about who can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors or estate. The types of potential damages in a wrongful death case—and in what amounts—will depend on the facts of each particular case. But Missouri's wrongful death law states that when determining the amount of the damages to award, the court will consider a number of factors, such as:
In addition, damages may be available for the value of care-giving services the deceased person provided. If the deceased person was not employed full-time and was providing care for at least one child, senior, or disabled person at least 50 percent of the time, Missouri law creates a rebuttable presumption that the value of the care provided was worth 110 percent of the state's average weekly wage at the time the death occurred. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.090 (2021).)
Note that there's no universal cap on damages in a Missouri wrongful death lawsuit, but the state's limit on medical malpractice damages would apply to a wrongful death claim stemming from a health care provider's error. 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 Missouri, the statute of limitations that applies to most wrongful death claims sets a filing deadline of three years from the date of the death. If the case is not filed within that period of time, the court will likely refuse to hear it at all. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.100 (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 Missouri, consider consulting a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can offer advice that's tailored to your specific situation.