Like each of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia has its own laws governing wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll look at some key components of these laws, including:
D.C. Code § 16-2701 defines a "wrongful death" as a death "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person or corporation." In other words, a wrongful death claim can arise when one person dies due to the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
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.
A wrongful death case may be brought to court if the deceased person could have filed a personal injury lawsuit based on the wrongful or negligent conduct that caused his or her death. In other words, a wrongful death case is like a personal injury case in which the injured person (the deceased) is no longer able to bring the claim on his or her own behalf. Instead, someone else must step in and file the lawsuit.
In some jurisdictions, the deceased person's family members are eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Washington, D.C., though, the personal representative (sometimes called an "executor") of the deceased person's estate must file the wrongful death claim. (D.C. Code § 16-2702 (2021).) If the person died without an estate plan (such as a will) that named a personal representative, or if the named personal representative cannot serve, the court may appoint one.
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are awarded to the deceased person's survivors to compensate them for the death. In Washington D.C., damages are primarily based on the financial losses suffered by the deceased person's family and are paid to the surviving spouse or domestic partner and other close relatives. Damages may include amounts for:
Unlike some other jurisdictions, the District of Columbia has no "cap," or limit, on the damages a family can recover in a wrongful death action. However, survivors in a wrongful death claim may not seek damages for mental distress, grief, or anguish. Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
A wrongful death case must be filed within a certain period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." In Washington, D.C., the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims is two years from the date of the person's death. (D.C. Code § 16-2702 (2021).) If the case is not filed before this deadline, the deceased's personal representative will very likely lose the right to file the case at all.
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in the District of Columbia, 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 might apply to your specific situation.