A wrongful death claim is a type of personal injury lawsuit, in which the defendant is accused of responsibility for the death of another person. The basis for this claim can be in the defendant’s alleged negligence (failure to behave/act with a reasonable level of care and attention under the circumstances), or direct actions that they have allegedly taken (up to, and including, murder).
This is a civil, rather than criminal, matter, which means that a wrongful death accusation is prosecuted (and possibly punished) quite differently than a charge of, for instance, murder. Whereas a criminal prosecution must prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt”, a civil case is determined by a “preponderance of the evidence” (that is, a defendant may be found liable if the prosecution can show that it is more likely than not that the defendant was responsible). Prison time is not on the table for a civil case, but the judge may order one party to pay damages, or may order them to undertake certain actions.
How is negligence demonstrated?
There are four basic elements that the plaintiff must demonstrate when supporting a wrongful death claim:
- Duty – did the defendant have any sort of duty to actively keep the deceased safe from harm, or to refrain from causing harm to the deceased?
- Breach of said duty – if there was a duty, as above, did the defendant fail in some way to fulfill it?
- Causation – was any harm suffered by the deceased demonstrably a result of the defendant’s breach of duty?
- Damages suffered – were there damages dealt as a result of the breached duty? (This point is standard in negligence cases, but for wrongful death it can be assumed that there were damages: namely, the death of the deceased)
Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?
In a criminal case, the defendant is accused of crimes against society as a whole, and prosecution would, consequently, be dealt by the state or other governing party. In civil cases such as wrongful death, however, the party claiming injury files the lawsuit. Typically, this will be the family or other who may have shared a close relationship with the deceased, and who are accordingly affected by his or her death.
Note that in order to win such a lawsuit, claimants must demonstrate that they are actually entitled to the specific damages that they are seeking. The more distant their relationship with the deceased, the harder it will likely be to support these claims.