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The sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one can overwhelm you with grief and have devastating financial and emotional consequences. It can be even more difficult to handle when your loved one’s death was caused by the negligent or wrongful actions of someone else. Arizona law recognizes the rights of certain surviving family members to pursue justice when their loved ones are killed because of the negligent or intentional actions of other people or entities by filing wrongful death claims. Under the law, a wrongful or negligent actor’s liability will not end simply because their victim died.
While filing a wrongful death lawsuit can’t replace your loved one, it might allow you to hold the responsible party accountable for their egregious actions and recover financial compensation to ease the burden your family might be facing. The Mesa wrongful death attorneys at Lamber Goodnow are compassionate lawyers who understand how devastating the loss of your loved one can be. We are committed to helping our clients pursue justice and recovering full compensation for all of their losses.
Understanding Wrongful Death Claims
Under the common law, the families of people who were killed because of the negligent or wrongful actions of others had no civil legal remedy they could pursue. While a person who survived their injuries would have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit to recover compensation from a negligent party, the family of a person who succumbed to their injuries could not. Because of the inequity this posed, the Arizona legislature enacted ARS 12-611 to specifically allow certain surviving family members to file wrongful death claims against the negligent or wrongful parties that caused their loved one’s death. Under this law, the liability of the negligent or wrongful party survives the death of the victim instead of being extinguished by it.
Liability in Wrongful Death Claims
Wrongful death claims can involve causes of action for intentional acts or negligent acts. Many wrongful death claims involve negligence causes of action. To prevail in a wrongful death claim alleging negligence, the plaintiff who files the lawsuit must prove that the defendant was negligent and caused their loved one’s death. This means that the plaintiff will have the burden of proof to prove each of the following elements:
- The defendant had a duty of care to the victim.
- The defendant violated the duty of care.
- The defendant’s breach of the duty of care caused the incident and the victim’s death.
- The plaintiff suffered actual damages as a result.
Many wrongful death claims also are filed against defendants who are faced with criminal charges for the same incidents. While both a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal case might rely on similar evidence, the burden of proof in wrongful death vs. criminal cases is different.
In a criminal case, the prosecutor has the burden of proving the elements of the criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high burden because of the potential loss of the defendant’s liberty. By contrast, the burden of proof in a wrongful death claim is a preponderance of the evidence. This burden means that it is more likely than not that the incident occurred as claimed by the plaintiff. This is a much easier burden of proof than what is required in a criminal case since the defendant will not face jail or prison time if they are found liable in a civil wrongful death claim. If the same defendant is found guilty at a criminal trial, they will face prison or jail time.
Because of the lower burden of proof required in a wrongful death case, someone can be found liable in a wrongful death claim while being found not guilty in a related criminal trial. Having the ability to pursue a wrongful death claim might be a way for families to hold defendants accountable for their actions even when their criminal cases are dismissed.
A famous example of this principle is O.J. Simpson. While Simpson was found not guilty at his criminal trial for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, he was subsequently found liable to pay damages to the surviving family members through their wrongful death actions against him.
Parties Who Can File Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Under ARS 12-612, Arizona limits the ability of people to file wrongful death lawsuits to those with certain relationships with the deceased victim. People with the following relationships to the decedent are allowed to file wrongful death lawsuits in descending order of priority:
- Surviving spouse
- Surviving children
- Surviving parent or guardian
- Personal representative or executor of the decedent’s estate if none of the above-listed people survived the decedent
If the victim is a child, either the child’s parent(s) or the child’s legal guardian can file a wrongful death claim.
Wrongful Death vs. Survival Actions
Wrongful death claims are different than survival actions, but both types of claims can be filed when someone is killed because of the negligent or wrongful actions of another party. In a wrongful death action, the surviving family members can file a lawsuit to recover compensation for the losses they have incurred because of their loved one’s death. Under ARS 12-613, juries can award damages to the plaintiff in a wrongful death case for the losses the plaintiff has suffered because of the loss of their loved one that the jury deems fair and just.
Survival actions are allowed under ARS 14-3110. These types of lawsuits are filed by the decedent’s estate executor or personal representative instead of by a surviving family member. However, if a surviving family member is named as the estate’s representative or executor, they might file a survival action as well as a wrongful death claim.
While wrongful death lawsuits allow the plaintiffs to recover compensation for their losses, survival actions allow the estate to recover compensation for the losses the deceased person would have suffered if they had not passed away except for the deceased person’s pain and suffering before they died.
Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit are paid to the surviving family members. Damages in a survival action are paid to the estate and are distributed according to the deceased victim’s will or the state’s intestacy laws if there is no will.
Some of the types of damages that might be recoverable in a wrongful death case include the following:
- Funeral/burial costs
- The loss of the benefits and wages the deceased person would have earned over their expected lifespan if they had survived
- Medical expenses incurred to treat the victim’s injuries before they died
- Property damage
- The surviving family member’s emotional pain and suffering
- Loss of companionship, guidance, and consortium
- Loss of the household services provided by the decedent
Unlike some other states, Arizona does not place a cap on the damages that can be awarded in wrongful death lawsuits.
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FAQs: Wrongful Death Claims
Many people who have lost their loved ones because of the actions of others have questions about their legal rights and options. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions a wrongful death attorney Mesa at Lamber Goodnow receives and their answers to help you understand your potential claim.
Q: When Should a Wrongful Death Claim be Filed?
A: Arizona has statutes of limitations for all types of legal cases that determine when they must be filed. Under ARS 12-542, there is a two-year limitations period for wrongful death claims that starts to run from the date of the deceased person’s death. If a claim is not filed within two years, the surviving family members will be precluded from pursuing legal remedies for their losses.
It is important to note that the statute of limitations for wrongful death in Arizona starts to run on the date of the victim’s death instead of the date of the accident. If a victim survives their injuries for a couple of months before succumbing, this means that the limitations period will not begin running until the date of their death instead of the date they were injured.
Rather than waiting until the statute of limitations is nearly up, it is best to speak to a wrongful death attorney Mesa at Lamber Goodnow as soon as possible. Hiring a lawyer early can allow your attorney more time to investigate your case and gather evidence that could otherwise be lost. There are also certain situations in which the statute of limitations might be shorter. For example, if you are an executor and want to file a survival action, the statute of limitations for survival actions in Arizona is one year. If the negligent party that caused your loved one’s death is a government entity, the statute of limitations can be much shorter. You should talk to an attorney as soon as possible after your loved one’s death to preserve your ability to pursue a claim.
Q: What Are Punitive Damages, and Can I Recover Them?
A: Most wrongful death claims involve compensatory damages, which are designed to compensate the surviving family members for the economic and non-economic losses they have suffered because of their loved one’s death. In some cases, punitive damages might also be available in wrongful death claims. These are damages that are paid on top of any compensatory damages and are meant to punish the defendant instead of compensating the plaintiffs. While punitive damages might be available in some cases, they are rarely awarded. They are generally reserved for cases in which a defendant’s conduct was outrageous, willful, or wanton. Punitive damages are not available in wrongful death claims against government employees or entities, however.
Q: Who Can Recover Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A: The parties who can recover damages in a wrongful death lawsuit include the victim’s surviving spouse, children, parent(s), or guardian. However, if none of these parties survive the victim, the estate’s executor or personal representative can file a lawsuit. When an executor files a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate, any compensation that is recovered will be distributed to the will’s beneficiaries. If there is no will, the personal representative can file a lawsuit. In that situation, the compensation that is recovered will be distributed to the decedent’s heirs under Arizona’s intestacy laws.
Q: Do I Have a Wrongful Death Claim?
A: Whether you have a viable wrongful death claim will depend on the facts and circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death and your relationship with the deceased victim. A wrongful death lawyer Mesa at Lamber Goodnow can review your potential claim and explain whether it has legal merits.
Q: How Much Is My Wrongful Death Case Worth?
A: Wrongful death cases are not worth a standard amount. Instead, their value greatly varies based on multiple factors, including the age of the victim, their earnings capacity, the egregiousness of the defendant’s actions, the available insurance policies, whether the decedent contributed to the accident, and others. A lawyer can analyze your potential claim and provide you with a range of values based on the various factors that influence your claim’s value.
"My wife and I had occasion to use Mr. Lamber and his staff for a legal matter. The entire staff was wonderful. They kept us informed of every step and communicated quickly and effectively as things changed or progressed. We would highly recommend Mr. Lamber and his staff to anyone needing legal advice or assistance. They had a very high level of integrity and professionalism. It's too bad there are only 5 stars for their rating. They are excellent."
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Jonathan Carrillo Lopez
2394 E Camelback Rd #600
Phoenix, AZ 85016