All states have passed their own statutes regarding wrongful death cases that are filed in their courts. These statutes define wrongful deaths, designate who can file such cases, specify what damages might be sought in them and set the time limits for filing these lawsuits.
Wrongful death cases are heard in the civil courts
Wrongful death cases aren’t criminal prosecutions. Although a person might be prosecuted criminally for a death, the family of the person who died can’t be awarded damages through the criminal courts. That’s what the civil courts are for, and that’s why wrongful death cases are heard in the civil courts.
The burden of proof
The prosecution has the burden of proof in a criminal case. It’s required to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Since a wrongful death case is civil in nature, a lower burden of proof applies. That burden is by a preponderance of the evidence. It means that the version of events of the person who brought the lawsuit is more likely true than not true.
What is a wrongful death?
Section 2-611 of the Arizona Revised Statutes is a good example of what the various states consider a wrongful death to be. It generally allows a wrongful death lawsuit to be filed if the decedent would not have died from injuries caused by an act or failure to act of somebody else and could have filed a personal injury lawsuit himself or herself for damages.
Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?
Section 2-612 of the Arizona Revised Statutes specifies who is eligible to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. They can only be brought by survivors who include:
- A spouse
- A child of the decedent
- His or her parent or legal guardian
- The legal representative of any of these people
Should these individuals not exist, or should they refuse to bring the wrongful death lawsuit, the estate of the decedent will be allowed to bring the case. Section 12-612 specifically bars siblings or other relatives, same-sex partners and individuals purporting to be common law spouses from bring a wrongful death action.
The act or failure to act
Nearly all wrongful death cases across the country are based on the law of negligence. To prove negligence, the person bringing the wrongful death case must prove certain elements. Those elements are that:
- The defendant owed the decedent a duty of care
- There was a breach of that duty
- The breach of duty caused the decedent to be injured
- The injuries suffered by the decedent were the proximate cause of his or her death
- His or her survivors or estate suffered legally recognized damages
If the person bringing the action fails to prove any one of those elements, the wrongful death case based on negligence fails in its entirety. If all of the elements are proved, damages can be awarded. Damages in wrongful death cases ordinarily fall into two categories. One of those involves damages that are recoverable by the decedent’s estate. Those might include:
- Medical bills reasonably connected with the accident that led to the decedent’s death
- Lost earnings and benefits from the date of the act or failure to act in relation to his or her life expectancy
- Any pain and suffering that the decedent experienced prior to death
The other category of damages involves those that were suffered by the decedent’s family members. They’re distributed outside of the estate. Those can include:
- The value of the decedent’s household services
- Loss of the decedent’s companionship, guidance and comfort
- Suffering and anguish as a result of an early death
Don’t forget about the time limit to bring a wrongful death case
It’s critical for anybody who is thinking about filing a wrongful death case to remember that there’s a time limit for bringing the case. That’s called a statute of limitations, and in Arizona, the lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date of the decedent’s death. Failure to file any wrongful death case within that two year period will likely result in the case being dismissed forever. Other states have both shorter and longer limitations periods. If you believe that you might have a wrongful death case against a municipal entity, notice requirements might apply, and the statute of limitations might be shorter than two years.
After the accidental death of any relative, don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation and case evaluation. Don’t worry about bring any money to our offices. No legal fees are due unless we obtain a settlement or verdict for you.