In Vermont, when a person dies due to another party's reckless, negligent, or intentional act, the deceased person's estate could be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Each state has its own wrongful death laws, and in this article we'll look at some of the key parts of Vermont's wrongful death statutes, including the definition of a "wrongful death" in Vermont, who can file a wrongful death claim in the state, the damages that are available if the case succeeds, and the time limits for getting the lawsuit filed.
In Vermont, a wrongful death is a death resulting from the "wrongful act, neglect, or default of a person or corporation." Vermont's law states that an action for wrongful death may be brought to court in any situation where, if the deceased person had lived, he or she could have brought a personal injury claim. Because the injured person is no longer able to file a claim on his or her own behalf, someone else must step in and file the claim. (Vt. Stat. tit. 14, § 1491 (2021).)
As with personal injury cases in general, many types of events can be the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit, including negligence-based incidents (such as car accidents), medical malpractice, and intentional acts—including crimes. In fact, Vermont's wrongful death law specifies that a wrongful death claim can proceed even if the act that caused the death was a felony.
Also as in other types of personal injury lawsuits, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of money damages (more on damages, below) that the court orders the defendant to pay to the deceased person's survivors or estate. 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.
There are other differences between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit. For example, 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. (Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.)
Some states' laws permit the deceased person's family to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In Vermont, though, only the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate can file the wrongful death claim. (Vt. Stat. tit. 14, § 1492 (2021).) If the deceased person had an estate plan, he or she probably named a personal representative as part of that plan. However, if the deceased person did not have an estate plan or the named personal representative cannot or does not wish to serve, the court can appoint to fill the role.
Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or compensation for losses associated with the death—to the deceased person's survivors or estate. In Vermont, although the personal representative must file the wrongful death lawsuit, any damages awarded will be for the benefit the deceased's surviving spouse and next of kin.
If the deceased person left a surviving spouse but no children, damages awarded in the wrongful death claim are distributed to the spouse. If there is no surviving spouse or children, but there are surviving parents, the parents receive the damages awarded. However, a parent who has abandoned a child cannot recover damages in that child's death. Likewise, a spouse who has abandoned another spouse may not recover damages in a wrongful death case if the abandoned spouse dies.
Damages can be awarded to compensate for a range of losses. In Vermont, damages are commonly awarded for:
Learn more about damages that might be possible in a successful wrongful death case.
Like all states, Vermont limits the amount of time the personal representative has to file the wrongful death lawsuit under a law called a "statute of limitations." The statute of limitations that applies to most wrongful death claims in Vermont sets a filing deadline of two years from the date of the person's death. But other time limits could apply depending on the circumstances of the case, including:
If the claim is not filed by the applicable deadline, the court will most likely refuse to hear it. Wrongful death cases—and statutes of limitations—can be complicated. If you are considering a Vermont wrongful death lawsuit and think you might be running up against the filing deadline, it's time to contact a personal injury attorney. An experienced attorney can explain how the law applies to your specific situation.