Wrongful Death Lawsuits in North Carolina

Learn about wrongful death claims in North Carolina -- what they are, who can sue, and what damages are recoverable.

In this article, we'll explore key sections of North Carolina law as it relates to wrongful death lawsuits. We'll look at the definition of wrongful death in North Carolina, the time limits for filing this kind of lawsuit in the state's civil court system, and who may file a wrongful death claim in the state. We'll also examine the different kinds of compensation (damages) that are available in a North Carolina wrongful death case.

North Carolina Wrongful Death Claims

North Carolina Statutes section 28A-18-2 defines a wrongful death as one caused "by a wrongful act, neglect, or default of another." When such a death occurs, the personal representative of the deceased person's estate may file a civil claim seeking damages for the wrongful death. So, a wrongful death case is similar to a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own case to court. Instead, another party must bring the matter to court to seek damages for any wrongdoing on the part of the defendant.

North Carolina law specifies that a wrongful death claim may be brought to court even if the actions that caused the death also meet one or more of North Carolina's legal definitions of a felony. A wrongful death claim is a civil case. This means that it must be filed by the personal representative directly, and that liability in the case is expressed solely in terms of money damages. By contrast, a criminal case is filed by the prosecuting attorney, and guilt is punished by imprisonment, fines, or other penalties. A wrongful death claim may be filed even if a criminal case is already proceeding on the same set of facts.

Time Limits for Filing a North Carolina Wrongful Death Claim

North Carolina's statute of limitations sets a time limit for filing a wrongful death claim in court. These claims must typically be filed within two years of the date of the deceased person's death. If the claim is not filed within this three-year time period, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it altogether.

Because the running of the statute of limitations can be affected by certain specific facts or events, it is important to speak to an attorney with experience in North Carolina wrongful death law to determine exactly how the statute of limitations applies to your particular case.

Who May File a North Carolina Wrongful Death Claim?

In North Carolina, the personal representative of the deceased person's estate must file the claim in court. The wrongful death claim may seek damages on behalf of both the estate and the surviving family members.

If the deceased person had an estate plan, he or she may have named a personal representative within that plan. That named individual may serve as the personal representative if he or she agrees to do so and the court agrees to the appointment. A personal representative appointed in this manner is typically called an "executor" or "executrix."

If the person named in the estate plan cannot or will not serve as personal representative, or if there is no estate plan, the court will appoint another individual. Surviving spouses, parents, or adult children are common choices of personal representative.

Damages in North Carolina Wrongful Death Cases

Damages in a North Carolina wrongful death case can be pursued for a number of losses. These include:

  • medical expenses, including hospitalization, surgery, pharmacy, and rehabilitation or hospice care for the deceased person resulting from the final injury or illness
  • pain and suffering the deceased endured before death
  • reasonable funeral and burial expenses
  • lost income
  • loss of the deceased person's services, protection, care, and assistance, and
  • loss of society, companionship, comfort, guidance, and advice.

Punitive damages may also be awarded in some North Carolina wrongful death cases. Unlike other types of damages, punitive damages are not intended to repay the family or the estate. Instead, they are used to "send a message" when a defendant's actions were the result of "malice or willful or wanton conduct." The purpose is to punish the conduct that caused the death and to warn similarly-placed people or companies that such behavior will not be tolerated.

When damages are awarded in a wrongful death case in North Carolina, they are applied first to repaying the estate for the expenses of pursuing the action, then to the payment of reasonable attorney's fees and costs and the payment of outstanding funeral, burial, and medical bills. The remaining amounts are then distributed to the beneficiaries directly.

Learn more about Damages in a Wrongful Death Case.

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