After a loved one dies, it's common for families and friends to feel that someone must be to blame. In cases of natural death or even accidental death, this is often a temporary feeling that is just part of the grieving process. But in some cases, deaths are actually caused by another person's negligent or malicious actions, in which case there is real blame to be laid – not just morally, but legally. In those cases, someone close to the deceased may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the person or entity responsible and receive compensation for their loss. Take a look at what you need to know about filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
What Makes a Death Wrongful?
A death may be a tragedy, but is it necessarily wrongful? What makes a death wrongful? In some cases, the wrong is fairly clear-cut. A wrongful death suit can be filed when someone dies from criminal violence, like a shooting or stabbing, which is obviously wrong.
Other types of cases are less obvious. If a death occurs because of medical malpractice, for example, that would be a wrongful death, but in some cases, it can be difficult to prove that the patient would have lived if they'd had a different doctor or received different treatments. If the patient would have died regardless of the doctor's action, they may not be responsible for a wrongful death.
In addition to deliberate violence and medical malpractice, almost any type of personal injury situation could be grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit. That includes car accidents, exposure to dangerous conditions or chemicals, defective products, medication errors, and more.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit?
In order to file a wrongful death suit, a person must have standing, a term that means that they legally qualify to file the lawsuit. Laws vary from state to state and according to each individual's situation, but generally speaking, a person must have a close relationship with the deceased person or be their legal representative in order to have standing. For example, you may have standing to bring a wrongful death lawsuit for your spouse but not for your neighbor.
Usually, two people can't file different wrongful death lawsuits over the same death. That means that if there's some disagreement over who has standing to bring the lawsuit, a judge may have to appoint one party the personal representative of the deceased so that person can file the lawsuit. State rules matter a good deal as well. In Alabama, for instance, individuals cannot file wrongful death lawsuits; only the deceased person's estate has standing. So, the person filing the lawsuit must be the representative of the estate.
How Long Can You Wait Before Filing a Wrongful Death Suit?
Wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within a certain statute of limitations. After that time limit runs out, you will no longer have standing to file a wrongful death suit. Time limits are set by the state, so depending on your location, you might only have a year to file the lawsuit, or you could have two, three, or more years.
In general, the clock on the statute of limitations starts with the death itself, which means that you'd have a year from the death to file the lawsuit. However, the discovery rule could change things in some states. The discovery rule is used to establish whether or not the deceased person knew what caused the injury or illness that they died from before the time of death. If it's determined under the discovery rule that the deceased person did know what would cause their death before they died, the clock would start from the point of that discovery, not the actual date of the death.
What's more, if the deceased person had grounds for a personal injury lawsuit before they died, but failed to file one before the statute of limitations ran out, and the death was caused by the same injury, that statute of limitations could prevent you from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit. There are also certain exceptions to the time limitations that sometimes apply when a death is caused by a defective product. Because it's possible for the statute of limitations to be shortened by the rule of discovery, the absence of a personal injury lawsuit, or some other exception, it's always important to discuss your case with an attorney as early as possible, even if you believe you're within the statute of limitations. The sooner you file a case, the better the chance that it will be within the required time limits.
Wrongful death lawsuits can be very involved, requiring expert witnesses and complex legal knowledge, so it's important to have the help of an experienced attorney when filing a wrongful death suit. Talk to a local attorney who's familiar with the wrongful death laws in your area to find out more about filing a wrongful death lawsuit.Share