When another’s negligence causes a victim’s death, the law provides protections for the decedent’s surviving family members. A decedent’s spouse, children, or parents may be entitled to file a wrongful death action to seek compensation for their losses. Of course, no amount of financial compensation will bring a loved one back or erase the emotional trauma your family must endure. However, a wrongful death claim can bring justice for families by holding responsible parties accountable.
A wrongful death claim provides support to families who are financially burdened by their loved one’s death. The weeks following an unexpected death are often overwhelmingly stressful for the decedent’s family and loved ones. Think ahead, however, because the law provides a statute of limitations that limits the time within which families may file a wrongful death claim. After the statute of limitations expires, families may be barred from seeking compensation from those who caused their loved one’s death.
Common Situations Leading to Wrongful Death
A wrongful death may occur in a variety of circumstances. Wrongful death claims are civil, rather than criminal matters. The actions of the responsible party that allow families to file a wrongful death claim may also result in criminal charges. However, the outcome of any criminal proceedings will not affect the outcome of a wrongful death claim.
Wrongful death actions frequently involve accidents that may not necessitate criminal charges. Despite whether the responsible party’s actions are considered “criminal,” surviving family members may be entitled to compensation in civil court.
Common accidents that may result in a wrongful death include:
- Car accidents, particularly, commercial truck accidents;
- Boating accidents;
- Train accidents;
- Plane accidents;
- Bicycle accidents;
- Pedestrian accidents;
- Accidents at work, such as those where the employer does not provide adequate safety equipment or does not maintain safety equipment;
- Medical malpractice; and
- Defective products.
In some cases, negligent behavior may be so egregious that the state will pursue criminal charges. For example, if the responsible party was driving under the influence of alcohol when they caused another’s death, the police may charge the defendant with manslaughter. However, as mentioned, the criminal charges will be handled independently of any wrongful death action. Through criminal proceedings, the defendant may be sentenced to jail for his actions. Through civil proceedings, the defendant may also be required to pay monetary damages to the victim’s family.
Because criminal trials and their appeals can take a long time, you should always discuss your options with a wrongful death lawyer as soon as possible. Do not delay filing a wrongful death suit to await the outcome of a criminal trial.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Action?
Within the first three months after a wrongful death, the parents, children, and spouse of the decedent can bring a wrongful death action. Each of these parties may file a lawsuit on behalf of all parties who are entitled to bring a wrongful death claim. All eligible parties’ claims should be brought together in a single action.
However, once three months have passed, if the parents, spouse, or children do not bring a wrongful death action, the administrator or executor of the estate may file the lawsuit. However, the representative of the estate may not file a wrongful death claim if the family requests that they refrain from filing.
How Long Do I Have to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In Texas, like most states, a statute of limitations provides a specific amount of time within which a claim may be filed. The time limits vary depending on the type of legal action parties are pursuing. It is important to understand that once the time limit imposed by the statute of limitations expires, individuals will be barred from filing a lawsuit. The statute of limitations requires a wrongful death claim to be filed within two years of the decedent’s death. If the defendant requests that the court dismiss a claim they claim is untimely, the court may require claimants to provide a certified death certificate.
Of course, like most other laws, there are exceptions to the statute of limitations. For instance, the time period defined by the statute of limitations may be tolled, or paused, in certain circumstances. At times it is difficult to discern the identity of the responsible party after an accident.
If you do not know the identity of the defendant, you may file a wrongful death complaint, which will pause the statute of limitations. Filing the complaint will allow additional time for the victim’s family to identify the responsible party. Whenever the identity of the defendant is discovered, the law provides families with 30 days to amend their complaint to name the responsible party. Once the claim is amended, the statute of limitations will begin running, again.
If the decedent is your minor child, the statute of limitations does not start running until the minor child would have turned eighteen years old. From that date, families are allowed two years to file a wrongful death lawsuit. However, don’t rely on an exception. The statutory exceptions will not be applicable in every case. It is always better to file a wrongful death lawsuit sooner rather than later.
Damages You Might Collect in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The amount of damages you might recover for a wrongful death lawsuit will depend on the circumstances of the death. Families may be entitled to additional compensation if the defendant’s behavior that caused the death was particularly egregious. In most wrongful death claims, families may be entitled to seek three types of damages. The types of damages may include economic, non-economic, and, under certain circumstances, exemplary (or punitive) damages.
The court orders special damages, often referred to as economic damages, to make families who have suffered a loss whole again. Economic damages may include any quantifiable losses related to the death of your loved one. For instance, economic damages may include medical expenses, lost wages, lost inheritance, and the replacement or repair of personal property. You may also include the costs of funeral and burial expenses in your claim for economic damages.
The court orders general damages, often referred to as non-economic damages, to compensate families for intangible losses they endure as a result of losing their loved one.
By nature, these damages are more difficult to quantify, and may include:
- Loss of companionship;
- Loss of love;
- Inconvenience; and
- Loss of consortium for a spouse.
Often called exemplary damages, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant’s grossly negligent behavior. Punitive damages hope to deter such behavior in the future to prevent further loss.
Wrongful Death Recovery Caps
In some cases, the amount claimants may recover in a wrongful death lawsuit might have a cap. The maximum amount you may be entitled to recover depends on the type of wrongful death case.
If another’s actions caused the death of your loved one, contact a wrongful death lawyer and ask for a free consultation so you can get your questions answered and decide what to do next.