In Rhode Island, when a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional action, the deceased person's estate or family could be eligible to file a wrongful death claim. In this article, we'll examine several important aspects of the laws that apply to wrongful death lawsuits in Rhode Island, including:
Rhode Island law defines a "wrongful death" as one that is "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another" individual or entity. The act, neglect, or default that led to the death must be the type of action that would have allowed the deceased to file a personal injury claim had he or she survived. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 10-7-1 (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:
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. 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 for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: In criminal court, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt"—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, even when facing criminal charges related to the same death. In fact, Rhode Island's law specifies that a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed even if the death was the result of a crime.
Read more 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 able to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, another party must step in and file the lawsuit in order to seek compensation for the deceased person's survivors.
In Rhode Island, the executor or administrator of the deceased person's estate has six months from the date of the death to bring the wrongful death claim to court. If there is no executor or administrator, or if the executor or administrator does not file the lawsuit within this six-month period, the deceased's beneficiaries may file the claim on behalf of all beneficiaries. And if the beneficiaries file the wrongful death lawsuit, the executor is prevented from pursuing a claim. (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 10-7-2 and 10-7-3 (2021).)
In addition to the general wrongful death claim pursued on behalf of all beneficiaries, Rhode Island law permits the deceased's spouse, parents, and/or children to file separate wrongful death actions, with damages awarded directly to those who suffered the loss, as follows:
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors. In Rhode Island, damages can be awarded to compensate for a range of losses, including:
Under Rhode Island law, if a wrongful death claim succeeds, the defendant is liable for at least $250,000 in damages.
Read the full text of Rhode Island's wrongful death statues at R.I. Gen. Stat. §§ 10-7-1 to 10-7-14, and learn more about the damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within a certain period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." In Rhode Island, a wrongful death claim must be filed within three years of the deceased person's death. However, if the act that caused the death could not be known on the date of the death, the claim may be filed within three years of the date on which the wrongful act was—or should reasonably have been—discovered. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 10-7-2 (2021).)
If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death claim in Rhode Island, 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 applies to your specific situation.