Each state has its own rules regarding wrongful death lawsuits. In this article, we'll take a look at state laws that could affect a wrongful death case in Oklahoma. We'll start with Oklahoma's definition of wrongful death and who may file a wrongful death case in the state. Next, we'll explain the varieties of damages that are available in an Oklahoma wrongful death case, and the time limits for filing your lawsuit in the state's civil court system.
Oklahoma Statutes Chapter 12, Section 1053 defines a wrongful death simply as a situation "when the death of one is caused by the wrongful act of another." The "wrongful act" that results in the deceased person's death may be caused by intentional, reckless, or negligent conduct on the part of the defendant.
A wrongful death claim may be brought if the act that caused death would have allowed the deceased person to file a personal injury lawsuit had he or she lived. In this way, a wrongful death claim can be understood as a personal injury case in which the injured person is no longer available to file a claim on his or her own behalf. Instead, the survivors of the deceased person must bring the claim to court to recover damages.
Oklahoma law allows the "personal representative" of the deceased person's estate to bring a wrongful death claim to court. The personal representative stands in for both the deceased person and for the beneficiaries or heirs of the deceased.
In many situations, the deceased person will have appointed a personal representative in his or her estate plan. Often, the appointed personal representative is the spouse of the deceased person, although parents, children, and siblings are also common choices. If the person named in the estate plan is willing and able to serve, the court will likely recognize that person as the personal representative, allowing him or her to file a wrongful death claim.
If there is no named personal representative, or the named personal representative is unable or unwilling to serve, the court may appoint a personal representative. This person is often a family member, although they do not have to be.
A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit. It is filed by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate, and liability for wrongdoing is expressed solely in terms of money damages.
An Oklahoma wrongful death lawsuit allows for damages to be sought in two separate categories. First are the damages suffered by the deceased person, which he or she would have been able to pursue in a personal injury case. These include:
The second category includes damages suffered by the surviving family members as a result of the deceased person's death. This category includes damages for losses like grief and loss of companionship, and reasonable funeral and burial expenses.
Oklahoma also allows for punitive damages to be awarded in certain wrongful death claims. Unlike other types of damages, the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the family or estate for their loss. Instead, punitive damages are awarded to punish particularly bad conduct and to send a message that egregious behavior will not be tolerated.
Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.
In Oklahoma, a wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the deceased person's death. If the claim is not filed within this time, it will almost certainly be barred by the court. The law that sets this kind of time limit is known as a "statute of limitations."
Because a wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit, it is heard separately from any criminal case that might be based on the same set of facts. Generally speaking, a criminal case will not affect the running of the two-year statute of limitations. Because certain findings in a criminal case can affect how the civil case unfolds in court, however, it is important to speak to an attorney with experience in Oklahoma wrongful death law to understand exactly how Oklahoma's statute of limitations and other rules may affect your case.