Montana, like all states, has specific laws governing wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll examine some key points of these laws, including who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in Montana, what damages may be available if the lawsuit succeeds, and the time limits for filing a wrongful death claim in the state's civil courts.
But what qualifies as a "wrongful death"? Montana law states that a wrongful death occurs when "injuries to and the death of one person are caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another." (Montana Code § 27-1-513 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death occurs when one person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
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 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 instance, in a criminal case, the accused's guilt must be established "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.
Get more details about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Unlike in other types of personal injury cases, the injured person in a wrongful death case is no longer available to seek compensation from the person or company that caused the injury. Instead, someone else must step in and file the claim on his or her behalf.
Many states permit the deceased person's family members to file a wrongful death claim. In Montana, however, the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate must file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Learn more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a Montana wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are intended to compensate the deceased person's surviving family members for the losses they suffered as a result of the death. Damages can be either "economic" or "noneconomic" in nature, and both types of damages may be awarded in a single wrongful death case.
"Economic" damages are damages for which a concrete dollar amount can be established, usually through evidence like receipts, bills, or pay stubs. In Montana, economic damages can include compensation to cover medical bills, funeral and burial expenses, and the lost value of the wages and benefits the deceased person would likely have earned during his or her expected lifetime.
"Noneconomic" damages are harder to quantify, but they are intended to compensate for the intangible losses suffered by the deceased person's family as a result of the death, such as:
Get more information on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Montana, like all states, sets time limits on filing a wrongful death claim under a law called a "statute of limitations." In Montana, most wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within three years of the date of the death. However, if the death was the result of a homicide, the time limit is ten years from the date of the death. (Montana Code § 27-2-204(2) (2021).) If the claim is not filed before the statute of limitations expires, the deceased person's personal representative will most likely lose the right to file the lawsuit.
For more details on Montana's wrongful death laws—and how they could apply to your potential claim—consult an experienced personal injury lawyer in your area.