This article examines a number of Texas laws that could affect a wrongful death claim filed in the state. We'll begin by discussing how Texas defines a "wrongful death," and who may file a wrongful death lawsuit. Then, we'll talk about the types of damages available in a wrongful death claim and the time limits for bringing the case to court.
Texas Statutes section 71.001 states that an action for wrongful death may be brought if the "wrongful act, neglect, carelessness, unskillfulness, or default" of one party causes the death of another.
The surviving spouse, children, and parents of the deceased person may file a wrongful death claim in Texas. Any one of these individuals may file the claim singly, or a group of them may choose to file it together.
If the surviving spouse, children, or parents do not file a wrongful death claim within three months of the date of death, the personal representative or executor of the deceased person's estate may file the claim instead, unless a surviving family member specifically requests that the wrongful death claim not be filed.
In Texas, adult children may file wrongful death claims over the death of a parent.
An adopted child may also file a wrongful death claim for the death of an adoptive parent, if the child was fully and legally adopted by that parent; however, an adopted child may not file a claim for the wrongful death of a biological parent.
Similarly, the adoptive parents may file a wrongful death claim if their adopted child suffers an untimely death.
However, Texas law does not allow surviving siblings to file a wrongful death claim for the loss of a brother or sister, whether biological or adopted.
The filing process is one of two key ways in which a wrongful death claim differs from a criminal homicide case. In a wrongful death claim, the surviving family members or personal representative must file the claim directly, and liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages. In a criminal case, however, charges are filed by the prosecuting attorney's office, and guilt is punished with imprisonment, probation, fines, or other penalties. A Texas wrongful death claim may be filed even if criminal charges are also filed in connection with the death.
Damages in a Texas wrongful death claim are paid to compensate the surviving family members and the estate for their losses stemming from the untimely death. Damages in a Texas wrongful death case may compensate for losses like:
In some Texas wrongful death claims, exemplary damages are available. Exemplary damages may be recovered when a wrongful death is caused by a willful act or omission, or by gross negligence. In other jurisdictions, exemplary damages are sometimes known as "punitive damages." The purpose of exemplary damages is not to compensate the family, but to punish a wrongdoer and send a message that willful or grossly negligent behavior will not be tolerated.
When damages are awarded in a Texas wrongful death claim, they are divided among the surviving family members in proportion to the injury they suffered as a result of the untimely death. These proportions are typically determined by the court.
Learn more about Wrongful Death Damages.
Texas has a specific statute of limitations requiring that a wrongful death lawsuit be filed within two years of the deceased person's death, unless one of a handful of clearly-defined exceptions applies to the situation. For the details on those exceptions, or if the two-year deadline is approaching, talk to an experienced Texas wrongful death lawyer.