Each state has its own set of laws governing how wrongful death claims are handled in civil court. These laws allow a deceased person's surviving family or personal representative to file a lawsuit when the death is the result of another party's accidental or intentional action. In this article, we'll take a look at some important aspects of Utah's wrongful death laws, including the state's definition of a "wrongful death," who may file this kind of lawsuit, the time limit on filing a wrongful death case in court, and the types of damages available if a wrongful death claim succeeds.
In Utah, a "wrongful death" is one that is caused by the "wrongful act or neglect" of another. (Utah Code § 78B-3-106 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death occurs when one person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
As in other types of personal injury lawsuits, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case 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 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 must be shown 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 a single 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 Utah wrongful death claim must be filed either by the deceased person's heirs or the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate. But if the deceased person was an adult under guardianship, the legal guardian may bring the wrongful death claim to court.
Under Utah law, the "heirs" who may file a wrongful death claim include:
(Utah Code § 78B-3-105 (2021).)
Note that if the personal representative or a guardian 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.)
No matter who files the wrongful death claim, it must be filed within the time limit set by a law called a "statute of limitations" in order to be heard in court. In Utah, the statutes of limitations that apply to wrongful death claims require that wrongful death claims be filed within two years of the date of the death, or within one year of the death if the claim is filed against a government entity. (Utah Code §§ 78B-2-304, 63G-7-402 (2021).)
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 family or estate. Most damages in wrongful death cases fall into the category of "compensatory damages," which are intended to compensate survivors for losses related to the death. Damages in Utah can include compensation for:
In very rare cases, the court can award punitive damages. Unlike compensatory damages (described above) punitive damages are not intended to compensate survivors or the estate for losses. Instead, they are awarded to punish intentional or reckless behavior and deter similar conduct in the future.
Utah wrongful death cases are complicated—and the law can change at any time. If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Utah, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law applies to your specific situation.