Each state has its own laws governing wrongful death lawsuits filed in the state's civil court system. In this article, we'll examine some key points of New Jersey wrongful death law, including:
New Jersey defines a "wrongful death" as a death "caused by a wrongful act, neglect or default." (N.J. Stat. § 2A:31-1 (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:
The conditions that caused the death must be such that, if the deceased person had lived, he or she would have been able to file a personal injury lawsuit. So it can be helpful to think of a wrongful death case as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer able to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, another party must bring the claim on the deceased person's behalf.
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.
Another big difference between a criminal prosecution and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: 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.
Like all lawsuits, wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law known as a "statute of limitations." In New Jersey, the statute of limitations that applies to most wrongful death lawsuits sets a filing deadline of two years from the date of the death. If the claim is not filed within that two-year window, it will almost certainly be barred from court entirely.
Note that New Jersey has no statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim if the death was the result of murder, aggravated murder, or manslaughter for which the person who caused the death was convicted, found not guilty by reason of insanity or adjudicated delinquent (as a juvenile). (N.J. Stat. § 2A:31-3 (2021).)
In some states, the deceased's surviving family members are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In New Jersey, however, the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate must bring a wrongful death claim. If the person died without a will naming a personal representative, the court will appoint someone to act as an administrator who can file the lawsuit. (N.J. Stat. § 2A:31-2 (2021).)
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful New Jersey wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors. Damages in a wrongful death case are intended to compensate for losses such as:
Although the personal representative or administrator must file the wrongful death lawsuit, any damages awarded will go to the deceased person's survivors. New Jersey law states that the following family members can receive damages:
Among family members, generally speaking, the surviving spouse or children come first. Only if there is no surviving spouse or child will surviving parents inherit, and only if there are no surviving parents can the siblings, nieces, or nephews of a deceased person receive damages in the wrongful death case.
In addition, survivors must demonstrate that they were dependent on the deceased person in order to be eligible to receive damages. (N.J. Stat. § 2A:31-4 (2021).)
Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in New Jersey, 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.