In Oklahoma, when a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional action, the deceased person's estate could be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll examine several important aspects of the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Oklahoma, including:
Under Oklahoma law, a "wrongful death" is defined as a death that is caused by "the wrongful act or omission of another," when the act or omission would have permitted the person to file a personal injury lawsuit had he or she survived. (Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1053 (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.
In some states, the deceased person's surviving family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Oklahoma, though, the law requires the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate to bring a wrongful death claim to court. (Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1053 (2021).) 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 will. If there is no named personal representative, or the named personal representative is unable or unwilling to serve, the court may appoint one.
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
"Damages" are the plaintiff's claimed losses in a personal injury case. In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court will award damages to the deceased person's survivors to compensate for a range of losses. In Oklahoma, damages are typically awarded for the following:
If the deceased person was an unmarried minor child who had not been emancipated, damages can be awarded for:
In some Oklahoma wrongful death cases, the court may award punitive damages. Unlike other types of damages, the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the family or estate for their losses. Instead, punitive damages are awarded to punish particularly bad conduct and to send a message that egregious behavior will not be tolerated.
For more information: Read the full text of Oklahoma's wrongful death law at 12 Okla. Stat. §§ 1053 to 1055, and learn more about the damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law known as a statute of limitations. In Oklahoma, a wrongful death case must be filed within two years of the date of the person's death. If the case is not filed within this time period, the court will most likely refuse to hear it at all.
If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Oklahoma, it's a good idea to discuss the details of your case with a personal injury attorney in your area. Wrongful death cases can be complicated, and an experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply to your specific situation.