Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Tennessee

A look at eligibility for bringing a Tennessee wrongful death claim, potential damages, and more.

Like all states, Tennessee has a set of statutes that apply to wrongful death claims. These laws permit a deceased person's survivors or estate to file a lawsuit if the person died as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act. In this article, we will look at some key parts of Tennessee's wrongful death laws, including:

  • how state law defines "wrongful death"
  • who can file the lawsuit
  • the different types of damages available if a wrongful death claim succeeds, and
  • the time limit for filing this kind of case.

How Is "Wrongful Death" Defined in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit arises when a person (or fetus) who dies from "injuries received from another" or "by the wrongful act, omission, or killing by another" would have been entitled to file a personal injury lawsuit had he or she survived. (Tenn. Code § 20-5-106 (2021).)

Tennessee law treats wrongful death claims as a special type of personal injury case, in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, the right to bring the claim passes to certain family members or to the personal representative of the deceased person's estate (more on this in the next section). As with personal injury cases in general, many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death claim, including:

In a wrongful death lawsuit, as in all personal injury cases, the defendant's liability is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation ("damages"), which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent's survivors or estate. This is one big difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide case, where a conviction will be penalized with jail or prison time, probation, and other sanctions.

Another difference to note between criminal prosecutions for homicide and civil lawsuits for wrongful death: 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 need only be shown "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the decedent's 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. In fact, Tennessee law specifies that a wrongful death lawsuit can proceed even if the death was the result of a felony.

Read more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.

Who Can File a Tennessee Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Tennessee law allows only certain family members to file a wrongful death claim. Initially, the right belongs to the deceased person's surviving spouse. If there is no surviving spouse, the following parties may file the lawsuit, in order:

  • the surviving children
  • the surviving next of kin
  • the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") or administrator of the deceased person's estate, and
  • the surviving parent or parents, if the deceased was dependent on his or her parent at the time of death.

Note that if the personal representative or administrator files the wrongful death claim, any damages recovered will be awarded to the deceased's surviving family members. (Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.)

What Types of Damages Are Available in a Tennessee Wrongful Death Case?

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. Depending on the facts of the case, damages available in a Tennessee wrongful death case can include compensation for losses such as:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • medical expenses
  • lost wages, including the value of wages and benefits the deceased would likely have earned if he or she had lived
  • physical and mental suffering experienced by the deceased
  • the deceased's loss of time and necessary expenses resulting from the injury, and
  • survivors' loss of the deceased person's love, care, guidance, society, and companionship.

Get more information on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.

How Long Do I Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim in Tennessee?

Wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." The statute of limitations that applies to wrongful death cases in Tennessee requires that the lawsuit be filed no later than one year from the date of the person's death. (Tenn. Code § 28-3-104 (2021).) If the case is not filed within this time, the surviving family members will most likely lose the opportunity to file the wrongful death claim at all.

If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death cases are complicated, and a lawyer who is experienced in this area can offer advice that applies to your situation.

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