Like all states, Texas has laws that apply to wrongful death claims. The law is complex and can be difficult to understand. But the idea behind it is simple: The survivors of a person killed by someone else's wrongful conduct can sue for compensation (called "damages") for injuries they suffer because of the death. We'll explain Texas's wrongful death law, and we'll also have a look at a similar kind of lawsuit called a "survival" action.
(Here's an online version of the Texas wrongful death laws, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 71.001 to 71.012 (2023).)
In Texas, a "wrongful death" happens when:
As with personal injury claims in general, many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
The same facts can give rise to both a criminal homicide prosecution and a wrongful death case. The O.J. Simpson case is a famous example. Simpson was found not guilty of murder in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. But in a later wrongful death suit, he was ordered to pay damages to Brown Simpson's and Goldman's families.
One big difference between a criminal homicide case and a wrongful death case is the standard of proof. In a homicide case, the government must establish the accused person's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," the highest standard of proof under the law.
In a wrongful death case, the standard of proof is significantly lower. The plaintiff must prove the defendant's liability only by a "preponderance of the evidence." Under this standard, the plaintiff (the party who filed the lawsuit) need only show that it's slightly more likely than not that the defendant (the party being sued) caused the death.
In a successful wrongful death case, the court orders the defendant to pay damages to the deceased person's survivors. By contrast, in a successful criminal prosecution, typical penalties include jail or prison time, fines paid to the state, or probation.
(Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.)
Wrongful death and survival actions often are filed together because both relate to the same event: An injury that caused a death. We'll explain the difference between these actions, but here's a simple shorthand that might help:
A wrongful death suit pays damages to the deceased person's survivors for injuries they suffer because of the death. For example, survivors typically ask for damages for the income and financial support they would have received from the deceased person had the death not happened. Damages are paid for the survivors' injuries, not the deceased person's injuries.
A survival action, by contrast, is a claim that the deceased person could have brought to collect damages for their own personal injuries had they not died. The survivors or the estate of the deceased person can bring a survival action. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 71.004 (2023).)
Suppose the deceased person was badly injured in a car wreck but lingered for two weeks before dying. A survival action would ask for compensation for the injuries the deceased person suffered—things like medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and emotional distress—between the date of the injury and the date of death.
Under Texas law, 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.
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 must 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 (2023).)
In a successful Texas wrongful death case, damages 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 can compensate for a range of injuries the survivors might experience, including:
In addition, exemplary damages (sometimes called "punitive damages") can be awarded in a Texas wrongful death case, but only if the death resulted from a "wilful act or omission or gross negligence." (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 71.009 (2023).) Exemplary damages aren't intended to compensate the family for losses associated with the death, but to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from engaging in similar conduct.
(Learn more about wrongful death lawsuit damages.)
There's a time deadline for filing all personal injury cases in court, including wrongful death lawsuits. This deadline is called the "statute of limitations." In Texas, the wrongful death statute of limitations is two years from the date of the person's death. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.003 (2023).)
What does this mean? If you want to pursue a Texas wrongful death lawsuit, you must file it in court within the two-year time limit. If you try to file suit after the statute of limitations expires, the court probably will have no choice but to dismiss your case.
If you plan to pursue a Texas wrongful death claim, you should have a lawyer. Wrongful death lawsuits can be factually complex, often involve difficult legal issues, and are likely to require expert witnesses to provide evidence concerning the values of different damages. This isn't the kind of case you want to handle on your own.
An experienced Texas wrongful death lawyer understands Texas law, knows how to put together a winning case, and will help you get the best possible result for your wrongful death claim. Here's how to find an experienced wrongful death attorney in your area.