Wrongful death is a legal action in which a claimant files a civil suit against a defendant that he or she believes intentionally and willfully caused the death of a family member. A defendant in a wrongful death claim can be either an individual or a company, and claimants who file this type of suit are eligible to collect damages for medical expenses, loss of future income, and pain and suffering.
Wrongful death suits are sometimes filed against defendants who are found not guilty of a murder or manslaughter charge. The most famous example was the wrongful death claim filed against former NFL star O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges in a jury trial, but was found liable of causing the deaths of his former wife Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman.
What You Must Prove In a Wrongful Death Suit
In most wrongful death suits, a claimant must be able to prove four elements, including:
- Defendant Breached Duty of Care – Claimants must show that the defendant owed a duty of care to the person who died. For example, a doctor owes a duty of care to a patient that includes not taking any action that results in that patient’s death. Negligent actions such as leaving a surgical instrument inside a patient would constitute a breach of that duty of care.
- Negligence Or Wanton Carelessness – Claimants must also show that the defendant’s negligence or wanton carelessness led to the death of their family member. For example, leaving an instrument inside a patient would be considered a negligent or careless act.
- Causation – This means that the defendant’s negligence caused the death, and that there is no other possible reason that the person died.
- Damages/Loss – Claimants must show that the death of their loved one caused damages and losses that must be compensated. For example, claimants can show evidence of medical bills, funeral costs, and loss of future income. In addition, claimants can ask for pain and suffering damages caused by their loved one’s death.
While a jury will consider all the evidence, the major difference between a wrongful death trial and a murder trial is the burden of proof. In a murder trial, the plaintiff must convince the jury that the defendant is guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ which is a high standard.
In a wrongful death trial, the claimant must convince the jury that the defendant is guilty ‘by a preponderance of the evidence.’ This means that the evidence shows that the defendant is more likely to be guilty than not.
And because there is no prison sentence possible in a wrongful death claim, defendants are found ‘liable’ as opposed to ‘guilty,’ and the punishment is always a monetary award.
Situations That Could Lead To a Wrongful Death Claim
Some common situations that could lead to a wrongful death claim include:
- Medical Malpractice – If a surgeon operates on the wrong organ and causes a patient’s death, that surgeon could face a wrongful death claim for gross negligence.
- Murder/Manslaughter Acquittal – If a defendant is acquitted of a murder or manslaughter charge, the family of the person who was killed could file a wrongful death suit to hold the defendant liable.
- Product Defect – If a defective product caused a person’s death, the surviving family members could sue the manufacturers of the product for wrongful death.
- Car Accident – If the driver of a vehicle causes the death of another driver or pedestrian due to carelessness, the surviving family members could file a wrongful death claim.
If you believe you have a wrongful death claim and you would like to talk to an experienced law firm, please contact Kinnaird & Kinnaird, P.C. for a free consultation.