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What is a Wrongful Death Claim?

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Whenever someone dies it is normal for the survivors to want to find an explanation and a person to blame. Unfortunately, in some cases, nobody is to blame, and it was just that person's time. But, in other cases, when the death could have been avoided and someone else was in a position to prevent it, a wrongful death may have occurred.

Wrongful death is a civil claim in that has developed from a tradition handed down to American jurisprudence from the English common law system. In simplest terms, it is a claim against a person who can be held liable for a death. The claim is typically brought by the dead person's survivors, usually on behalf of the estate. In most jurisdictions, a wrongful death claim exists when a person loses their life as the result of another person’s negligence or intentional conduct. As a result, many wrongful death cases begin as a personal injury case that escalates into a wrongful death action when the severity of the victim's injuries results in death.

In order to bring a valid action for wrongful death, one must first show that a death occurred as a result of someone else's actions or inactions. Next, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the action or inaction
was either intentional, such as a murder, or negligent (i.e., that the person owed a duty to protect the decedent and breached that duty resulting in the death of the victim). Once the death and the cause have been established, who can bring the lawsuit becomes a question. At common law, dead people could not bring lawsuits, so their estates were not allowed to sue and it was often better to let someone die than survive with an injury. To close this obvious loophole, laws have evolved allowing close survivors to bring wrongful death actions. Usually, these are family members who have suffered monetary damages and who were dependent upon the dead person to live (such as children or a spouse). A personal representative is then usually appointed to establish an estate for the deceased, identify all survivors, and locate any other financial obligations the estate may have as a result of the death.

However, it is important to remember that many deaths just happen and are not the result of an intentional act or negligence. For example, one may die as a result of their injuries after a single vehicle car accident despite the best efforts of a doctor who exercises due care.

Because they are often the last to see a person before they die, many wrongful death actions focus on medical malpractice against the last doctor. The failure to diagnose a serious medical condition or to correctly perform a life saving procedure that causes someone to die is a common basis of a wrongful death claim. Of course, treating physicians are not the only ones in the cross-hairs of wrongful death actions. Nurses who provide the wrong medication, workplace injuries that should have been prevented, car accidents, and even murders can all be bases for wrongful death actions.

The standard of proof for a wrongful death case is the civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., that it is more likely than not that the defendant's actions resulted in the wrongful death). As a result, wrongful death is often used by the families of crime victims to pursue murders who might otherwise escape justice. A very well known example is O.J. Simpson who, after winning his criminal case, suffered a devastating loss in a civil action brought by the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.

Each state has its own laws regarding wrongful death claims. For that reason, if you think you may have a claim against someone for wrongful death, it is important that you consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction as soon as possible. You can find a list of attorneys on our website on the Law Firms page who are in your area and who focus their practice on this area of the law.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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