What Constitutes a Wrongful Death?

Categories: Injury Blog

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A wrongful death can be brought against an individual or group of individuals when a party dies from injuries due to someone’s negligence. These lawsuits allow for loved ones to seek justice and compensation for costs associated with that loss.

Not all deaths from accidents result in wrongful death lawsuits, and not all deaths qualify for compensation. There are strict rules that must be met for a case to proceed to court, and only specific family members have the right to initiate these lawsuits and collect compensation for them.

Pennsylvania laws allow for loved ones to file a lawsuit when a family member dies due to someone’s negligent actions. Often, these cases involve someone’s reckless behavior, negligence, or a deliberate act that results in death. Negligence is a vast term, but typically means that someone breached his or her duty of care owed to the public, and as a result, caused harm to another. When that harm causes fatal injuries, then that person can be held liable for the death they caused.

Wrongful death actions are filed by close family members, typically a spouse or surviving children. Other times, the wrongful death claim is filed on behalf of the estate, which will then divide the settlement among family members based on estate laws.

How to Prove You Have a Valid Wrongful Death Case

Wrongful death claims allow family members to seek damages if their loved one did not survive the accident.

These are civil cases; not criminal. Sometimes, a criminal case will be ongoing, such as when a drunk driver kills another person in a car accident and is charged with vehicular manslaughter. While there is a criminal case, these are not the same. Criminal cases seek justice, but they do not seek out compensation. Instead, if loved ones want compensation for their losses, they must file a civil suit.

Likewise, the outcome of a criminal case does not decide the result of the civil case – and vice-versa. The burden of proof in a criminal case falls on the state where they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant caused someone’s death. In a civil case, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff and they only need a preponderance of the evidence proving the defendant caused someone’s death.

Wrongful death cases would generally be personal injury claims had the victim survived the accident and their injuries. Because they died from that accident, however, family members have the right to seek damages that their loved one would have sought in a personal injury suit plus special damages that apply to the death itself.

Situations that might result in a wrongful death lawsuit include:

  • Motor vehicle and motorcycle accidents
  • Victims who are intentionally killed
  • Product defects that lead to a victim’s death
  • Medical malpractice
  • Vicious dog attacks
  • Deaths caused by prescription drugs

Wrongful death cases are highly emotional for family members and also highly complicated. They use unique sets of laws that do not apply to general injury claims, and the law dictates how much compensation family members can receive and which parties are eligible to receive it.

Therefore, if you think you have a wrongful death case, you should consult with an attorney.

Who Receives the Settlement: Beneficiaries

Only legal heirs and beneficiaries of the deceased’s estate can receive the settlement. Therefore, someone who is not a beneficiary to that party’s estate would have no right to file a claim on their behalf – such as a distant relative. In most cases, surviving children or a spouse would file the lawsuit.

When the beneficiaries of the estate are minors and there are no surviving parents, the court provides a legal guardian and the funds are set up in a trust so that it will go to the children when they become old enough to manage the funds. Grandparents caring for the minor children may file the lawsuit in some cases as well, especially if they file on behalf of their grandchildren and the adult children they lost.

Would the Case Qualify for Personal Injury Compensation?

The most important factor in a wrongful death case is that the case itself would have received compensation in a personal injury case – or at least had grounds to file a personal injury lawsuit. Therefore, the basic principles of an injury claim must apply:

  1. The defendant owed a duty of care. The defendant must have owed a duty to the victim to prevent any foreseeable harm.
  2. The defendant breached their duty. When there was a duty established, then the defendant must have reasonably known there was a risk and failed to prevent an injury from occurring.
  3. The breach of duty caused the injury or death. The breach of duty must be the cause of the person’s injury or death. If the two are not linked, there is no case.
  4. The breach and injuries resulted in losses. Losses, often referred to as damages, must be the direct result of that breach of duty and the injuries or death that occurred from it.

Damages and How They Differ

In a wrongful death case, damages often include similar compensation to an injury case, such as medical costs and lost wages. Damages can also include compensation for funeral and burial services (within reason), loss of future earning capacity and contribution (when the party that died contributed financially to the household), loss of companionship for any children and a spouse, and pain and suffering.

Hiring an Attorney Is Key

The most critical factor in a wrongful death case is your representation. If you do not have an attorney with experience handling personal injury claims in the area, then you may lose out on the compensation you deserve. It is best to consult with an attorney that has experience with injury cases and wrongful death claims.

If you lost a loved one recently, contact Jeffrey H. Penneys, Esq., to discuss your options. You can call him directly on his cell at 215-771-0430, the office at 800-465-8795, or by completing an online contact form.