Righting a Wrong(ful Death)
With Halloween creeping upon us, we thought it might be useful to take some time in our blog to discuss different aspects of wrongful death cases. Spooky, huh? Maybe, but like lots of other things we choose to ignore in life, it remains an unavoidable element of the world we live in. While no death is “right,” per se, a “wrongful death” refers to a death resulting from unnatural causes: when an individual is killed due to the negligence (or misconduct) of another individual or company. Examples of this are, but are not limited to, medical malpractice resulting in a death, a car crash, a death at work, and a death that is the result of criminal behavior.
A lawsuit involving a wrongful death may only be brought by a representative of the decedent’s estate. The “action,” as it is called in legalese, belongs to members of the decedent’s immediate family (such as a surviving spouse, child, and sometimes even parents). For example, if somebody dies a wrongful death leaving behind no family members or dependents, there is not much “cause for action,” aside from possible post-death expenses and, in rare cases, pain and suffering by the decedent prior to his or her death. In the event that the decedent consciously suffered ante-mortem, as a result of the negligent party’s actions, monies awarded to him or her will be divided up among relevant parties as dictated by the decedent’s will or by law, if the decedent died without a will.
As is the case in other personal injury cases, there are some stipulations to bringing a successful lawsuit in this area. There are four crucial elements that must be present – and proven – to litigate a successful wrongful death case. First, you must prove the death of a human being. Then, you must prove that the death was caused by the negligence (or intentional misconduct) of another. Third, you must prove the survival of family members who are suffering financial injury as a result of the death. Finally, there must be a legitimate appointment of a personal representative for the decedent’s estate.
In many other personal injury cases, there are damages such as loss of work, ongoing medical treatment, etc. In a wrongful death case, all of that is irrelevant, so the primary measure of damages is that of pecuniary injury which has to do with financial losses including loss of support, services, prospective inheritance, and funeral expenses – damages incurred by those who have the “action,” the immediate family members discussed earlier in the blog. There are a lot of factors that go into determining pecuniary loss. These include the decedent’s age, weight, health, earning capacity, life expectancy, intelligence, and all of the aforementioned factors of the decedent’s distributees – those close family members we keep talking about. A lot of stock is given to the circumstances surround the death. For example, if a primary wage-earning parent dies, a jury will award damages in the area of loss of income support and parental guidance to the surviving children and spouse. In addition to legal arguments, expert witnesses (economists, psychologists, etc) are often called to the stand to testify about the various areas considered when determining pecuniary damages.
When a wrongful death has arisen from a serious breach of duty of care or malicious wrongdoing, the issue of punitive damages arises. The basic purpose of punitive damages is to “punish” the wrongdoing party (i.e, make them suffer a financial loss so that they don’t engage wild misconduct again). Generally, this would only come into play in extreme cases. For example, if an out-of-date tractor-trailer was flying down the high-way without working brakes and crashed into a car, resulting in a death, punitive damages would be sought in a lawsuit against the company that owns the tractor-trailer. This is because it is grossly negligent to operate such a mammoth vehicle without having it properly inspected and equipped with appropriate safety mechanisms. Punitive damages can be hard to win, not only because of the fact that they’re usually reserved for extreme cases, but also because many states have begun enacting tort reform laws which limit and cap the amount of money that can be awarded in punitive damages.
The most heart-wrenching part of a wrongful death case is arguing for the surviving action on the behalf of the decedent. If the person in question was in a great deal of pain and fought for life until the bitter end, damages can be awarded for that pain and suffering. The components of a wrongful death case can be difficult to deal with – both emotionally and logistically. Knowing your rights, and the rights of those close to you, is an important part of always being prepared. And hopefully this blog will never be of any use to you.
If you have any questions or comments, please contact the Law Offices of Aronberg and Aronberg at 561-266-9191 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org