The loss of a loved one changes your life forever. No amount of compensation can fill the void the death has caused. Grief is one of the most complex emotions humans have to face. Depending on the nature of the death and the relationship to the deceased, grief can last for weeks, months or years.
When a tragic accident occurs, it is normal for survivors to experience shock and bewilderment, and it may be a long time before they can accept what happened. In addition to grieving, though, survivors need to function. They still need to pay bills, manage finances and regain a sense of normalcy to continue living.
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Why a Wrongful Death Can Be Especially Devastating
In many wrongful death cases, the death is untimely or sudden. One moment, you are kissing your loved one goodbye as they walk out the door. The next moment, you receive a phone call that they have been in an accident, and they might not make it. Suddenly, nothing in the world seems to make sense.
If the death of a loved one was caused by someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing, you might feel a great sense of injustice and anger. Not only are you are coping with feelings of loss, but you are also wondering why it happened — why did your loved one have to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why did they have to cross paths with a reckless person? You may feel that someone needs to pay for the pain and suffering they caused you and your family. Most importantly, someone needs to pay for the loss of a precious life.
To help you determine if you have a case, we will look at the different elements needed for a wrongful death claim. We understand that nothing can bring back your loved one, but we want to help reduce or eliminate some of the financial burdens resulting from your loss — so you have more time and energy to heal and memorialize your loved one.
What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
When someone dies due to someone else’s negligence or wrongful act, the surviving family members may file a civil lawsuit against the defendant to seek compensation for financial loss and mental anguish. Common causes of wrongful death include:
- Medical malpractice
- Traffic accidents
- Homicide or violence
- Premises liability
- Defective products
- Workplace accidents
Negligence is when someone knowingly acts in a way that puts others in danger, whether they intend to cause harm or not. Similarly, if someone chooses not to act knowing their inaction could cause harm, they too are being negligent. For example, if a doctor fails to send an ill person to a hospital for urgent care and instead sends them home, they are failing to act in a way that is appropriate for the situation. They are neglecting their responsibility as a doctor to provide the best care for their patient. If their patient dies due to their negligence, the patient’s family members can claim wrongful death.
Car accidents are another common cause of wrongful death, especially when alcohol is involved. Consider in 2015, 345 people died in alcohol-related crashes in Pennsylvania. Of those deaths, 14 were non-drinking drivers, six were passengers with non-drinking drivers and eight were non-drinking pedestrians. These individuals are now statistics. What did they do to deserve falling victim to someone else’s carelessness? Most drivers are aware of the danger of driving under the influence. If someone drives drunk and causes a fatal accident, they acted negligently. This is grounds for a wrongful death claim by the victim’s family members.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MURDER AND WRONGFUL DEATH?
One way to understand the difference between murder and wrongful death is to understand that murder is a type of wrongful death, but not all wrongful deaths are murders. Murder is a criminal act. When someone commits murder, the things they do directly cause another person to die.
Some murders, known as first-degree or felony murders, are planned and intentional. Second-degree murders are intentional and committed with malice, but not planned in advance. Manslaughter is another type of murder. It usually occurs without planning and is sometimes called a crime of passion. In the case of involuntary manslaughter, a person kills another without intention or planning.
Is Wrongful Death Civil or Criminal?
There are two overarching types of lawsuit: civil and criminal. A civil case results from individuals bringing cases against each other, whereas criminal cases are brought by government prosecutors on the behalf of the victims as well as the state.
In some cases, a person can be found not guilty of murder but still be found liable for someone’s wrongful death. A notable example of that is O.J. Simpson, who was found not guilty of murder, but later found liable for two wrongful deaths.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit?
Who exactly can file a wrongful death claim? Usually, the victim’s beneficiaries or those who were financially dependent on the victim can file a lawsuit. This includes close family members such as:
Compensation for loss of companionship and guidance may be awarded to immediate family members in addition to other monetary losses. However, if there are no surviving immediate family members, siblings may file a claim. If the victim has no siblings, the victim’s personal representative may seek compensation for funeral, medical and administrative expenses.
The judge has to consider many factors to determine a fair compensation amount. This, of course, is not easy. How does a judge place a price tag on comfort, companionship or pain and suffering? If a child lost a parent, how can the judge measure the value of memories that can no longer be made? It is a complex process as many things need to be considered such as:
- Medical expenses
- Funeral expenses
- Compensation for pain and suffering
- The victim’s employee benefits or pensions plan
- Loss of wages
- The amount of money the victim was expected to contribute
- Legal fees
This is far from a complete list, as there are many types of damages you can seek compensation for in the state of Pennsylvania. The judge will also consider the following about the victim to help determine compensation:
- Life expectancy
- Earning capacity
- Beneficiary circumstances
If the victim provided the household income, this would be taken into account. On the contrary, if the victim were dependent on others for income, this too would be considered when determining compensation.
When a child is a victim in a wrongful death case, it is not as easy to determine the financial loss. Judges need to speculate how much the family will lose as a result of their child’s death. The judge will try to determine financial compensation based on the child’s:
- Age, health, habits and life expectancy
- Earning potential
- Relationship to those claiming loss
- Health, age and circumstances of those claiming loss
Similar factors are considered in the death of an elderly loved one. Determining compensation is a difficult process that requires careful consideration of all losses and damages. It is important to have an experienced lawyer on your side to make sure nothing is forgotten and to advise you during an extremely difficult time.
Are Wrongful Death Settlements Taxable?
Many people worry that winning a wrongful death suit will complicate their taxes. Fortunately, this is not usually the case. Any lawsuit that results in a settlement for physical illness or an injury is not taxable. A court awarding a wrongful death settlement falls under this exception because the court has found that a third party caused the illness or injury that lead to an individual’s death.
Other types of proceeds do count as income and are taxed. If you are awarded for lost wages, receive compensation for emotional distress or receive punitive damages, those payments will be subject to income taxes.
What Are the Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Sometimes, as unfortunate as it is, tragic accidents happen. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 135,928 unintentional injury deaths. Sometimes there is no one to blame. For example, if a loved one is fatally injured because they were struck by a tree during a storm, there likely is not a case for a wrongful death lawsuit. However, if a loved one loses control of their vehicle because of a faulty part, there may be a case. In this situation, the manufacturer failed to design a safe part and may be found guilty of negligence.
To file a wrongful death claim, certain elements must exist. These include:
- The death of a person that is caused by someone’s negligence or intent to harm
- The survival of family members who are suffering financially and who have appointed a representative of the victim’s estate
The plaintiff, or the beneficiary filing the lawsuit, must prove to the court that the defendant was either negligent or acted intentionally, resulting in the death of their loved one. To prove the defendant was negligent, there must be evidence of the following elements:
- Duty of care: The defendant must have had a duty to the victim. To determine if the defendant owed a duty to the victim, the judge will consider if the defendant created a risk, knowingly caused harm, volunteered to protect the victim or had a business relationship with the victim. For example, it is a driver’s duty to other drivers to obey the law and drive carefully and responsibly.
- Breach of duty:The plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant breached, or violated, the duty they owed the victim. For example, if someone drives drunk, they are breaching their duty to not put other drivers at risk.
- Causation:The plaintiff must be able to prove that it was the defendant’s actions or carelessness that caused the victim’s death, not something else.
The plaintiff must be able to prove all three of the above elements to recover compensation. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has to prove the defendant is guilty, and they must establish this beyond a reasonable doubt. A wrongful death lawsuit is not a criminal lawsuit — it is a civil case. In civil court cases, the plaintiff has to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.
A preponderance of the evidence means more than 50 percent of evidence must convince the judge that the defendant is most likely guilty. This does not mean the plaintiff needs a large amount of evidence — just that they have quality evidence. A preponderance of the evidence is the burden of proof in a civil case.
Has a criminal case already been filed? You can still file a wrongful death claim.
What Is the Statute of Limitations in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A statute of limitations means you have a time limit to file a claim. When that time limit is up, you no longer have the legal right to file a claim. A statute of limitations varies by jurisdiction and the type of claim, but it applies to both civil and criminal cases. The statute of limitations clock starts ticking the day the injury or death occurs.
There are some exceptions to a statute of limitations. For example, in some cases, the victim may have had an illness that contributed to their death. A “discovery rule” may be applied to such situations, and the statute of limitations may begin before the death if the illness was known to exist.
In other instances, certain circumstances can extend a statute of limitations. Tolling, or delaying, may be allowed in cases where the plaintiff is a minor or temporarily disabled. When the plaintiff is no longer disabled, the statute of limitations may apply. If you feel like you need more time to file a claim, meet with an attorney to discuss your options.
With a wrongful death case, a personal representative, or executor of the victim’s will, has six months to file a wrongful death claim on behalf of the beneficiaries. After six months, any of the beneficiaries may file a lawsuit. Beneficiaries have two years from the date of the death to file a wrongful death claim.
We understand if you feel overwhelmed as the family member in a wrongful death case. However, you want to contact an attorney immediately after a wrongful death, despite the two-year statute of limitations. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to secure quality evidence and strengthen your case.
Can a Wrongful Death Judgement be Voided By Bankruptcy?
Under the bankruptcy code, there are many negligence judgments that can be discharged, leaving you without a settlement. However, certain damages and wrongful death judgments are not stayed or discharged by bankruptcy. Reckless or grossly negligent conduct may not be dischargeable.
For example, if your loved one died as the result of someone else driving drunk, the judgment will not be discharged. If you are facing a defendant who is trying to use bankruptcy to get out of a wrongful death suit, you need a skilled lawyer to prove that the judgment should not be discharged.
How Long Does a Wrongful Death Suit Take?
After the death of a loved one, the last thing you want to think about is a lengthy legal battle. Insurance companies know this, and will often take advantage of it by quickly extending a settlement offer in just a few months. That first offer may sound acceptable to the untrained ear, but it is never anywhere close to the maximum compensation possible. It is simply a tactic to keep you from taking the case to trial, where they may be forced to pay significantly more.
Working with a lawyer to fight for fair compensation takes longer, from about a year to four years. Your wrongful death attorneys will spend that time working on your behalf while you heal.
When Should You Contact a Lawyer?
It can be difficult to make sure you have all the right pieces in place to make a claim, especially in the throes of grief. Grief can be debilitating, and the law can be complex — not a good combination. You have a right to compensation for the wrongful death of a loved one. It is always a good idea to contact an attorney as soon as possible to help you with your case.
Our compassionate and experienced wrongful dealth lawyers not only believe in fairness, but they also genuinely care. They will gather all the evidence you need for your case, and they will provide expert legal advice every step of the way. Most importantly, our lawyers will make sure you receive the compensation you and your family deserve.
Leave it to us at KBG Injury Law to do the work. We will leave it to you to gain strength and heal.
Grief is real. Financial struggle is real. Common symptoms of grief include confusion and the inability to concentrate. How is it possible to handle a big case on your own in such a condition? How can you make important decisions, or any decisions, while coping with intense grief? The good news is you don’t have to.
If you are suffering emotionally, financially and spiritually as the result of someone else’s careless behavior or malicious intent, you deserve all the compensation possible. Request a free consultation with KBG Injury Law today and start your journey toward justice and healing.