How Wrongful Death Lawyers Help Families Recover (2024)

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.


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You may be reluctant to take legal action after the death of a loved one or overwhelmed by grief. A wrongful death lawsuit can help you obtain justice for your loved one's death, prevent others from suffering similar harm and ensure a more stable financial future for your family. A wrongful death lawyer can help you close the door to a painful chapter of your life and obtain the resources to move forward.

What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Every U.S. state has a wrongful death act. Although these laws vary significantly, they all give a deceased person's legal representative the right to pursue claims related to the person's death. You may have grounds for a wrongful death claim if someone's negligent, reckless or intentional behavior caused your loved one’s death. A wrongful death lawyer can help you understand whether the facts of your case warrant such a claim.

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What's the Difference Between a Wrongful Death Action and a Survival Action?

Some state wrongful death acts distinguish between a wrongful death claim (compensating the survivors for their losses) and a survival action (compensating the victim's estate for their own losses). Other states simplify the process by combining both types of claims into one general "wrongful death" cause of action.

Damages in Separate Wrongful Death Claims

The person who files suit in a wrongful death action asks the court to compensate them for the losses they and their family suffered due to their loved one's death. Types of damages that may be available in a wrongful death lawsuit include:

  • Medical expenses
  • Funeral costs and expenses for burial, interment or cremation
  • Loss of the decedent's expected future earnings
  • The value of lost household services, like housework, yard work and childcare, which the decedent would have performed
  • Loss of consortium (the loss of the care, companionship, guidance and society of the deceased)
  • Loss of a conditional inheritance or pension the deceased would have received
  • Compensation for emotional suffering and mental anguish

The allowable damages vary significantly from state to state. A wrongful death lawyer can help you understand what may be available in your situation.

Damages in a Survival Action on Behalf of the Victim

The law sometimes allows a person's representative to pursue personal injury claims on their behalf after their death. These "survival actions" are most common when someone is injured but does not die immediately. Examples include time spent in a coma or a lengthy and painful treatment following exposure to toxic chemicals.

A survival action allows the surviving family to recover additional damages that the victim could have recovered in a personal injury suit. These may include:

  • Medical expenses such as surgeries, medical transportation costs, pain management and hospice
  • Lost wages
  • Compensation for the victim's pain and suffering
  • Vehicle and property damage

A wrongful death attorney can help you understand the types of claims you may have and ensure you pursue the full scope of allowable damages. Some states also set limits, or "caps," on the amount and type of damages you can recover in certain wrongful death claims.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

In some states, only a person's immediate family can bring a wrongful death claim. Depending on the state, eligible relatives can include a spouse, parents, children, siblings or grandparents. In others, a person's appointed legal representative (sometimes called an "executor") can pursue an action on behalf of the estate, with any recovery going to their designated beneficiaries.

Most state laws prevent a person convicted of causing the victim's death from bringing or benefiting from a wrongful death claim. Some states also bar parents who abandoned their children as minors.

What Are Some Types of Wrongful Death Claims?

Many types of accidents and situations can give rise to wrongful death claims, including:

  • Workplace, industrial and construction accidents
  • Asbestos and other toxic tort claims

Many deaths that result from the negligence, recklessness or intentional acts or omissions of a person, company or organization could support a wrongful death claim. A person's family might be able to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against:

  • A drunk driver who caused a fatal accident.
  • A manufacturer whose asbestos-containing products caused a victim's mesothelioma.
  • A hospital whose agents negligently caused a patient's death.

Wrongful death attorneys can help you understand whether you may have a claim and pursue legal action against the responsible parties.

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Criminal Charges

Criminal charges are not the same as a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. Even if there isn't enough evidence to obtain a conviction on criminal charges, you may be able to recover damages in a civil action. An experienced attorney can help determine whether or not a lawsuit is appropriate to your situation.

Are Other Types of Recovery Available in Wrongful Death Claims?

In some states, you may pursue compensation called "exemplary" or "punitive" damages if a defendant's conduct was extraordinarily dangerous or egregious. Examples of wrongful death cases that could include these types of damages may involve:

  • Domestic violence
  • Drunk or impaired operation of a vehicle
  • Intentional attacks
  • Dangerous or defective products
  • Public health and safety violations

If the court grants an award of exemplary damages, it can allocate that recovery to the victim, the court or its agencies, the state, or wherever it sees fit. For example, a court might give an exemplary damages award related to a domestic violence death to a program helping families escape domestic violence.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Wrongful death attorneys often advertise on billboards and television, but the best wrongful death lawyer for your case often depends on the facts of your claim. Obtaining referrals from trusted sources and interviewing multiple attorneys can help you choose the best attorney to help you recover what you deserve.

  • State laws limit the time survivors have to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. If you don't file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires, you may lose your right to recover anything from the responsible parties. These deadlines range from one to six years, but many circumstances can limit or extend the allowable time.

  • Wrongful death attorneys typically use a contingency fee agreement for wrongful death cases. These contracts allow them to keep a percentage of any settlement or verdict they recover Instead of charging an hourly rate. They do not charge for their services if they do not recover any compensation. However, you may be responsible for paying the costs of pursuing a claim. Ensure you understand the terms of a proposed fee agreement before signing a contract.

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