How Do Wrongful Death Lawsuits Work?

If your spouse or a family member has been killed by the negligent actions of another party – a person, organization, or even a government’s action – it may be possible to bring a legal suit for wrongful death.

Wrongful death is akin to a personal injury lawsuit, but it is one in which the wrongful action has resulted in death rather than injury. The law requires that four things be true in order to bring a wrongful death suit.

  1. There must be a duty of care

In order for a wrongful death suit to be brought to court, the plaintiff(s) must have had a duty of care to the person killed. (A plaintiff is the person or entity a suit is brought against.) They must have been responsible for ensuring safety or proper operation. A landlord, for example, is responsible for maintaining safe conditions in his rental property and areas directly outside of it, such as sidewalks in front of the door.

  1. The duty of care must have been breached

The court must be convinced, in a wrongful death suit, that the existing duty of care was breached. If a staircase in an apartment building was missing stairs, for example, the landlord had a duty to repair the staircase. If he or she did not, the duty of care may have been breached.

  1. There must be causation

In addition to a responsibility of care and a breach of it, the courts will need to see causation. The breach of care must have been responsible for causing the death in question. If the opposing side can argue that the death was in fact caused by something else, the courts may rule against the defendant in a case, even if there was breach of care.

In other words, if someone plummets down a flight of stairs due to a breach of landlord care, the death must be due to that fall. What if the victim had a history of heart disease and medical records show death occurred from a heart attack? The plaintiffs can argue that the victim was killed by the heart attack, and not by any injuries sustained in the fall. The validity of the defendant’s claim may be dismissed.

  1. The survivors are experiencing hardship due to the death

The plaintiffs in a wrongful death suit must also prove that they are suffering physical, emotional, and financial losses as a result of the death.

Perhaps the decedent was a family breadwinner, for example, and the loss of wages is causing both financial and physical suffering. Quality of life and companionship may have suffered.

A legal claim in a wrongful death suit must be brought within a certain number of years after the incident causing the death. In California, for example, it is two years.

Wrongful death suits have multiple causes and therefore the parties that could be recipients of a suit vary greatly. An exploding product, for example, may result in a suit against the manufacturers of the product. An accident caused by a falling beam could result in a suit against the construction company or even government inspection agents. It all depends on duty of care, breach, and causation.