What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal civil action brought by the family members of a person who died or was killed as a result of a person’s or entity’s negligent behavior or as a consequence of an intentional act. When a person dies as a result of an exterior act of negligence, the surviving relatives can seek compensation for their loss, such as potential lost wages from the deceased, losing companionship, or funeral expenses.

A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action initiated by the surviving family members of an individual who died because of another person's negligence or wrongful act. Such events include deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, defective products, and medical malpractice.

A wrongful death lawsuit is different from criminal charges. While both handle the death of a person, wrongful death cases are settled in a civil court, while criminal courts handle homicide charges. Wrongful death lawsuits are filed by the victim's surviving family members with the purpose of recovering monetary damages while the state files criminal charges, and they seek a prison sentence.

In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff can win the case by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is liable while in a criminal trial the proof has to be beyond reasonable doubt. A defendant can face both criminal and civil charges for the same crime.

If a wrongful death lawsuit occurs first, a defendant may use the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination as the state can later prosecute him and use his statement against him. However, if the criminal case occurs first and the defendant is found not guilty by lack of evidence, the family can still file a wrongful death lawsuit and possibly win it, as it only requires a minimum of 51% of proof for liability.

The individuals who can sue for wrongful death are established by the law of each state. In most states, this right belongs to the surviving spouse, children or parents, but in some cases, only minor children are allowed to sue for the death of their parents. The victim's family can theoretically sue any person or entity responsible for the wrongful death of their loved one although some states prevent family members from suing each other for the passing of a third family member.

The damages plaintiffs can recover from a wrongful death lawsuit include both economic and non-economic awards, covering for medical and funeral expenses, but also for pain, suffering, and loss of companionship. Also, if the act that caused the death was extremely negligent or outrageous, the judge or jury might include punitive damages to the award.

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