When a person dies as a result of another party's intentional or accidental act, the deceased person's survivors could be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll look at the laws that govern wrongful death actions in Wyoming.
Wyoming law defines a "wrongful death" as a death that results from another party's "wrongful act, neglect or default," under circumstances where the deceased could have filed a personal injury claim had he or she survived. (Wyo. Stat. § 1-38-101 (2021).) As with other types of personal injury cases, many kinds of events can be the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit, including negligence-based incidents (such as car accidents), medical malpractice, or intentional acts (including crimes). In fact, Wyoming's law specifies that a wrongful death claim can proceed even if the death was the result of murder or manslaughter.
As with personal injury cases in general, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed exclusively 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 the two types of cases: In criminal court, the 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 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.
Most states' laws allow the deceased person's surviving family or the personal representative of the deceased person's estate to file a wrongful death claim. Wyoming, though, does things a bit differently. Under Wyoming law, only a "wrongful death representative" may file a wrongful death claim. A person wishing to act as a wrongful death representative must file a petition for appointment with the court in the county where:
Wyoming law doesn't specify who is eligible to serve as a wrongful death representative. But when deciding whom to appoint as the wrongful death representative, the court will make the determination based on who it believes will best represent the interests of all of the claim's beneficiaries (more on beneficiaries, below). (Wyo. Stat. §§ 1-38-103, 1-38-104, 1-38-105 (2021).)
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court awards damages to the deceased person's survivors to compensate for losses associated with the death. In Wyoming, although the wrongful death representative must file the lawsuit, any damages awarded are for the benefit of the deceased's beneficiaries, such as the deceased person's spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, or siblings. (Wyo. Stat. § 1-38-102 (2021).)
In Wyoming, damages can be awarded for many types of losses, including:
Learn more about the types of damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wyoming uses a modified comparative fault rule to resolve wrongful death cases in which the deceased person was partly or completely at fault for his or her own fatal injuries. The deceased person's beneficiaries cannot recover damages in a wrongful death case if the deceased person was more than 50 percent at fault. If the deceased person was 50 percent or less at fault, the total damages in the case are reduced by a percentage equal to the fault assigned to the deceased person. (Wyo. Stat. § 1-1-109 (2021).)
For instance, suppose that while crossing a street, a pedestrian is hit by a car and suffers fatal injuries. The driver had run a red light, but the pedestrian had stepped into the crosswalk without pausing to check whether the intersection was clear. At trial, the judge or jury decides that the deceased pedestrian was 25 percent at fault and the driver was 75 percent at fault. The total damages in the case are calculated at $100,000. Under Wyoming's comparative fault rule, the pedestrian's survivors will be able to recover a total of $75,000 in damages. This number equals the $100,000 total minus $25,000, or the 25 percent, of fault assigned to the pedestrian. If the pedestrian had been found to be 51 percent or more at fault, however, the beneficiaries would have been barred from collecting any damages at all.
The wrongful death representative has two years from the date of the person's death to file a wrongful death claim in a Wyoming court. If the case is not filed within the two-year time period, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it at all. (Wyo. Stat. § 1-38-102 (2021).)
Wrongful death claims can be complicated, and the law can change at any time. If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Wyoming, it might be time to consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law applies to your specific case.