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In Arizona, certain surviving family members of people who are killed by the negligent or intentional acts of others have the right to file wrongful death lawsuits. Through these types of claims, the family members might hold the defendant accountable while also recovering compensation for the economic and non-economic losses they have suffered because of their loved one’s death.
While recovering money can never replace your family member, it can help you pay for the losses you have suffered because of the wrongful actor’s actions. Wrongful death lawsuits also provide a way for surviving family members to pursue justice even when the wrongful actor is found not guilty in a related criminal action.
The Gilbert wrongful death lawyers at Lamber Goodnow are experienced and compassionate attorneys who understand how difficult it can be to deal with the sudden and unexpected loss of a close family member. We focus on holding the negligent or wrongful actors accountable for their actions while recovering maximal compensation for our clients. Our attorneys thoroughly investigate wrongful death cases to build strong claims and make success much likelier.
Understanding Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Arizona
Under the common law, the surviving family members of people killed by others didn’t have a right to file lawsuits against the responsible parties even though their loved ones would have been entitled to pursue compensation through a personal injury claim if they had lived. Legislators recognized that this was unfair and often left the surviving family members destitute. As a result, Arizona enacted its wrongful death laws to provide certain family members the right to file wrongful death claims against the party responsible for causing their loved one’s death.
The wrongful death statutes in Arizona are found in ARS 12-611, ARS 12-612, and ARS 12-613. ARS 12-611 provides the right to pursue a claim against a person or entity that causes someone’s death through negligent or intentional acts or through failures to act. ARS 12-612 defines the parties that are allowed to pursue wrongful death lawsuits and limits them to the following parties:
- Surviving husband or wife
- Surviving child(ren)
- Surviving parent(s)
- Surviving legal guardian
- Executor or administrator of the estate
Only the above-listed family members can file wrongful death lawsuits when their loved one is killed by someone else. Under ARS 12-613, wrongful death damages recovered in a lawsuit will be divided between the family members proportionately to their losses and are not subject to any debts owed by the deceased victim.
If they don’t survive, the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit on the estate’s behalf. Any compensation recovered by the executor or administrator will then be paid into the estate and distributed to the heirs. Wrongful death compensation covered on behalf of an estate is subject to any debts that were owed by the victim.
Differences Between Wrongful Death and Criminal Homicide Cases
In many cases involving wrongful death, the police and prosecutors might pursue criminal actions against the defendants who caused the victims’ deaths. Criminal homicide cases proceed under the state’s criminal code and are filed in criminal courts. Wrongful death claims are civil actions that are filed in civil courts. Since these are different bodies of law, wrongful death lawsuits can be filed at the same time as related criminal cases.
There are multiple reasons why you should file a wrongful death lawsuit even if the defendant is facing criminal charges. One reason is the difference in the required burden of proof. In a criminal homicide case, the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest burden of proof required. Prosecutors must meet this high legal burden because the defendant will face the loss of their liberty if they are convicted of the crime.
By contrast, the plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit has the burden of proof to present evidence to prove their claim by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that you must prove that the incident more likely than not occurred in the way you have argued. This is a lower burden of proof, meaning that it’s easier to win a wrongful death lawsuit than a conviction in a criminal case. The burden of proof in a wrongful death case is lower because the defendant won’t face prison time if they are found liable. Instead, they will have to pay monetary damages.
For example, O.J. Simpson was found liable in the wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. However, he was found not guilty in his criminal case for their murders. The ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit might provide a way for you to hold the defendant who caused your loved one’s death accountable even if they are found not guilty in a criminal case or are not charged with a crime.
Wrongful Death vs. Survival Actions in Arizona
In addition to a wrongful death lawsuit, another type of action that might be filed after your loved one’s death is a survival action. This type of lawsuit can only be filed by the administrator or executor of your loved one’s estate and is controlled by ARS 14-3110. If you have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit, you might also be the party with the right to file a survival action if you are serving as the executor or administrator of your loved one’s estate.
Wrongful death lawsuits are meant to recover compensation for the losses suffered by the surviving family members caused by their loved one’s death. Survival actions are used to recover compensation for the victim’s losses before they died that the victim would have otherwise been able to pursue in a personal injury case if they had lived. Unfortunately, however, Arizona survival actions do not allow the plaintiff to pursue compensation for the pain and suffering the victim experienced prior to their death.
There are also different statutes of limitations for wrongful death actions and survival lawsuits. These are laws that establish deadlines by which claims must be filed. The wrongful death statute of limitations in Arizona is found at ARS 12-542. Under this law, wrongful death lawsuits must be filed no later than two years after the date of death. If you fail to file your lawsuit by the deadline, you will be barred from pursuing compensation through a lawsuit.
The statute of limitations for survival actions is found in ARS 14-3109. Under this law, the executor or personal representative of the estate must file a survival action within 12 months of the date your loved one died.
Damages in Wrongful Death and Survival Actions
In a survival action, the estate’s executor or administrator can pursue the following types of damages:
- Cost of the medical expenses the victim incurred while being treated for their injuries until they died
- Lost wages between the time of the accident and the date of the victim’s death
- Property damage and losses
In a wrongful death lawsuit, the family members can recover the following types of damage in proportion to their individual losses:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Loss of the income the deceased victim would have earned during the rest of their life
- Loss of the household contributions the victim made to the family
- The family members’ grief and suffering
- Lost rights to an inheritance
- Loss of consortium for the spouse
- Loss of guidance for the children
Damages in Arizona wrongful death cases are not subject to any cap.
When a defendant’s conduct was particularly grievous or appalling, punitive damages might be awarded. These are damages ordered to punish defendants for egregious conduct and deter them from behaving in a similar way in the future. When awarded, punitive damages are paid in addition to the compensatory damages award. However, they are not available in all cases. The Gilbert wrongful death lawyers at Lamber Goodnow can explain whether they might be available in your wrongful death claim.
Negligence in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Wrongful death claims might include both intentional torts and negligence causes of action.
To meet your burden of proof, you will have to present evidence that shows each of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
- The defendant owed a duty of care to your loved one.
- The defendant breached the duty of care.
- The breach of the duty of care was either intentional or negligent.
- The defendant caused your loved one’s death because of the intentional or negligent act.
- You suffered calculable damages as a result.
You must present enough evidence to meet your burden for each of these elements. If you fail to prove all of the elements, you won’t win your case. Our Gilbert wrongful death attorneys fully investigate what happened in each case and work with experts to build strong cases showing the liability of the defendant. Our approach frequently allows us to recover compensation for our clients short of trial. However, we are always fully prepared to litigate on behalf of our clients before a jury or judge.
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FAQs: Gilbert Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Dealing with the unexpected and tragic death of your loved one can be devastating and overwhelming, and you likely have questions about your potential case. To help surviving family members understand their rights, we have compiled a few commonly asked questions our attorneys receive.
Q1: Do I Have to Wait for the Criminal Case to End Before Filing a Lawsuit?
A: No, you do not have to wait until the criminal case pending against the defendant who caused your loved one’s death ends before filing your claim. In fact, you shouldn’t wait to file your lawsuit. Depending on the charge, a criminal homicide case might take a couple of years to make its way through the litigation process. If you wait for it to end, you might be barred from filing your lawsuit because of the wrongful death statute of limitations.
Q2: What Is a Wrongful Death Case Worth?
A: Every wrongful death case is different, so there isn’t a set value that a claim might be worth. Instead, an attorney will look at multiple factors to value your claim. Some of the factors that can influence the value of a claim include whether the victim shared some of the fault, the nature of the defendant’s actions, the available recovery sources, your loved one’s age and earnings capacity, and others. When you meet with one of our attorneys, we will appropriately value your claim and give you an idea of what you might expect to receive in a fair settlement.
Q3: What if My Loved One Shared Fault For the Accident That Caused Their Death?
A: Under ARS 12-2505, Arizona follows a pure comparative negligence rule for accidents. This means that each person is responsible for their degree of negligence. If your loved one’s accident was partially caused by your loved one, the damages you recover will be reduced by their percentage of fault. For example, if your loved one was killed in a car crash in which they were 20% at fault, the gross award will be reduced by that percentage.
Q4: Can I Recover Punitive Damages?
A: Punitive damages are sometimes awarded in Arizona wrongful death cases. However, they are not available in every case. Whether you might receive punitive damages will depend on the defendant’s conduct. If the defendant acted recklessly, wantonly, or willfully when they caused your loved one’s death, punitive damages might be available. However, if the defendant was a government employee who caused your loved one’s death while performing their job, punitive damages won’t be available under the Arizona Tort Claims Act.
Talk to Lamber Goodnow
To learn more about your rights following your loved one’s death and the legal remedies that might be available, you should speak to an experienced attorney at Lamber Goodnow. Call us today to schedule a free case evaluation with our knowledgeable Gilbert wrongful death attorneys.
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Phoenix, AZ 85016