Like all states, Texas has a set of statutes that apply to wrongful death claims. These laws permit a deceased person's survivors to file a lawsuit if the person died as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act. In this article, with examine some key parts of Texas's wrongful death laws, including how the state defines "wrongful death," who may file the lawsuit, the types of damages available when a wrongful death claim succeeds, and the time limit for filing this kind of case.
In Texas, a "wrongful death" occurs when:
It can be useful to think of a wrongful death claim as a type of personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer able to bring the claim on his or her own behalf. As with personal injury claims in general, many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
In a successful wrongful death case, the defendant's liability 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 state or federal government must establish the accused person's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt"—a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant's liability 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 one event 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.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Texas law specifies that the deceased person's surviving spouse, children, and parents—or one or more of those individuals on behalf of them all—are eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the state's civil courts.
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 (sometimes called the "executor") or administrator of the deceased person's estate may file the claim instead, unless all of the surviving family members listed above specifically request that the wrongful death lawsuit not be filed. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 71.004 (2021).)
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful Texas wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are awarded to the deceased person's surviving spouse, children, and parents for their losses stemming from the death. Damages in a Texas wrongful death case may compensate for a range of losses, including:
In addition, exemplary damages (sometimes called "punitive damages") may be available in a Texas wrongful death case, but only if the death was the result of a "willful act or omission or gross negligence." The purpose of exemplary damages is not to compensate the family for losses associated with the death, but to punish the wrongdoer and deter other parties from engaging in similar conduct.
Get more information on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case, and read the full text of Texas's wrongful death statutes at Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 71.001 to 71.012.
A wrongful death case must be filed in court within a certain period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." In Texas, the statute of limitations that applies to wrongful death claims states that the lawsuit must be filed within two years of the person's death. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.003 (2021).)
For more details on Texas's wrongful death laws—and how they could apply to your potential claim—consult an experienced personal injury lawyer in your area.