Wrongful death law is an area of law that seeks to provide financial compensation to the heirs of a person whose death was caused by the negligent, willful, or wrongful act, neglect, omission, or default of another.
Each state has drafted its own set of civil “wrongful death statutes,” and some form of wrongful death claim action exists in all state jurisdictions today. While they all follow similar principles, each state jurisdiction is unique, so laws will vary from state to state. There are no federal statutes for wrongful death.
A wrongful death could occur as a result of a variety of situations, including:
Medical malpractice that results in decedent’s death.
Neglect or abuse on the part of a nursing home that results in decendent’s death.
Automobile, bus, train airplane or other common carrier accident.
Occupational exposure to hazardous conditions or substances (exposure to asbestos, etc.).
Death during a supervised activity (sports tournament, field trip, etc.).
An action for wrongful death alleges that the decedent was killed as a result of the negligence (or other liability) on the
defendant’s part, and that the decedent’s immediate family members (often called “distributees”) are entitled to monetary damages as a result of the defendant’s conduct. The most common distributees are surviving spouses and children, and sometimes parents. A suit for wrongful death may only be brought by the personal representative (executor) of the decedent’s estate. But, actions for personal injury (survival actions), conscious pain and suffering, or expenses incurred prior to the decedent’s death are also typically brought.
Pecuniary (financial) injury is the main way damages in a wrongful death action are awarded. Courts have interpreted “pecuniary injuries” as including the loss of support, services, lost prospect of inheritance, and medical and funeral expenses. Damages also typically include interest from the date of the decedent’s death. Punitive damages may also be awarded in cases of serious or malicious wrong-doing to punish the wrong-doer, and/or deter others from behaving similarly.
Any damages awarded belong to the estate and pass as directed by the decedent’s will or by state law if such things are not specified in the will.