Wrongful death cases can be among the most emotionally charged and legally intricate areas of civil litigation. Arising from negligent or intentional acts that lead to a tragic and untimely loss, wrongful death lawsuits can provide some measure of justice, support, and financial security for a victim’s surviving family members. This guide discusses the key elements and unique complexities of the legal frameworks, processes, and details involved with wrongful death cases.
What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit involves legal action filed by the surviving family members or beneficiaries of a person killed due to negligent, reckless, or intentional acts of another individual, entity, or organization.
The primary objective of a wrongful death civil lawsuit, as opposed to incarceration sought by government authorities in criminal homicide cases, is to seek compensation for the financial losses and emotional pain and suffering experienced by surviving family members following the unexpected loss of a loved one.
Several key characteristics of wrongful death lawsuits, many of which we’ll explore in further detail throughout this guide, include:
- Wrongful, Dangerous, or Negligent Acts – In cases of wrongful, dangerous, or negligent acts, there must be sufficient evidence to prove that the death in question was caused by another party’s dangerously wrongful or negligent conduct. The cause of death can include many circumstances, including motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, workplace incidents, defective products, or potentially criminal action. Lawsuits must then be filed within the statute of limitations for wrongful death—in Indiana and most states, outside of particular circumstances and specific exceptions, this is a two-year window following the victim’s passing.
- Damages to Surviving Family – As state law specifies, only certain individuals are eligible to file a wrongful death claim and receive compensation for various damages suffered. Most typically, qualified parties include immediate family members such as the deceased’s spouses, children, or parents. Damages can cover costs such as medical expenses related to the deceased’s injury, funeral and burial costs, future lost income, pain, suffering, and the sudden emotional loss of companionship associated with their passing.
- Burden of Proof – The plaintiffs in wrongful death cases bear the burden of proving that the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the victim’s death and that the damages sought are justified. Unlike a criminal homicide case, however, guilt is not required to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, wrongful death plaintiffs must establish liability by a preponderance of evidence—meaning that, within the eyes of the law and court, it’s deemed more likely than not that the accused’s actions caused the victim’s death.
- Settlement or Trial – In an effort to avoid additional costs or potential risks associated with taking a wrongful death lawsuit through to a trial, cases are often resolved through negotiations for a settlement with the responsible party or their insurance provider. Cases may proceed to trial if a reasonable settlement cannot be reached.
LEARN MORE: What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Common Causes & Types of Wrongful Death Cases
Wrongful death lawsuits can arise from a wide range of circumstances. While the specific types of cases can vary greatly, and different jurisdictions may govern certain circumstances differently or have applicable laws for specific liabilities, many wrongful death claims revolve around the following most common causes:
Fatal mistakes by doctors, nurses, or other trusted healthcare professionals are among the most common sources of wrongful death lawsuits. Many never intend to cause harm to a patient, but providers can be held responsible for critical misdiagnoses, prescription medication errors, surgical or anesthesia mistakes, childbirth injuries, or other forms of provider negligence across hospitals, private practices, and long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, in cases of elder abuse or neglect.
Fatal automobile accidents caused by the recklessness or negligence of another driver are other significant contributors to wrongful death cases. Instances of speeding, drinking and driving, distracted driving, or another reckless disregard for traffic laws can lead to tragedy. Vehicular wrongful death suits include semi-truck collisions, motorcycle accidents, and vehicles striking pedestrians. A wrongful death claim could also be filed following a plane crash or other aviation accident caused by pilot error, mechanical failure, or air traffic controller negligence, as well as a result of boating or maritime accidents due to negligence or reckless behavior.
Fatalities in the workplace can happen due to unsafe conditions, a lack of training, or specific instances of employer negligence. Wrongful death cases often stem from industries such as manufacturing or transportation, but they’re most common in construction. Inadequate safety measures surrounding hazardous materials, equipment malfunctions, falling objects, or fatal slips and falls at construction sites make the industry one of the most dangerous in the country, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training.
Property owners or managers can be held accountable for deaths that occur on their premises due to hazardous conditions, inadequate security, or negligence in maintaining safe premises. Premises liability suits often result from slip-and-falls and violent crimes on poorly secured properties.
Defective Consumer Products
If a defective or dangerous product leads to a death, the at-fault manufacturer, distributor, or retailer may be held liable. The most common fatally defective products include vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and other medical products or self-care devices.
LEARN MORE: Types of Wrongful Death Cases
How to File & Proceed With a Wrongful Death Claim
Wrongful deaths suits are complex, often challenging cases requiring ample time, effort, expertise, and resources. Qualified and respected attorneys typically don’t enter into wrongful death lawsuits lightly. Every case is different and unique, but general steps in the process include:
- Consult Your Attorney – The first and most important step is to consult with an experienced wrongful death attorney who knows the legal intricacies and specific complexities of the courts and proceedings in your jurisdiction. Your wrongful death attorney may offer a complimentary consultation to evaluate the circumstances of your case, determine its merit, and advise you on the legal options available and your best course of action moving forward.
- Identify & Notify the Responsible Party – Your attorney team will help gather the necessary evidence to establish liability and determine who is legally responsible for the victim’s death. Supporting evidence for your case could include medical records, accident reports, eyewitness statements, expert opinions, or other relevant documentation. Your lawyer will then send a notice of intent to the party deemed responsible or their insurance provider, informing them of your intentions to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
- Determine Relevant Damages – In order for a victim’s surviving family members to be eligible for monetary damages, attorneys must prove there was a level of financial dependence carried by the deceased before their death. An experienced and knowledgeable attorney can help determine an appropriate amount for the damages sought, including medical expenses, funeral costs, lost future income, the family’s pain and suffering, loss of companionship, and other related expenses.
- Settlement Negotiations – Negotiations for a settlement may begin as soon as the responsible party is notified of your intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit against them and can continue throughout the legal process. Your attorney can advise whether a proposed settlement offer is fair and in your case’s best interest.
- Filing the Lawsuit for Trial – If a settlement cannot be reached, your attorney will formally file your wrongful death claim with the appropriate court and proceed with trial preparations. The discovery phase includes exchanging information and evidence related to the case, such as depositions and relevant document requests. Pre-trial discovery may uncover important details and evidence that encourages one or both parties to pursue a settlement, and most wrongful death cases are resolved at a settlement table rather than in a courtroom. If the case does advance to a trial, both sides present their arguments and findings to a jury to decide liability and damages.
If the court rules in your favor, it will issue a judgment specifying the amount of damages awarded. If the defendant wins, you may have the option to appeal the decision, but you should thoroughly consult with your attorney to determine if that’s a recommended next step.
LEARN MORE: How to File a Wrongful Death Claim
Act Fast: Meeting the Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations
While there are certain circumstances or special exceptions that may affect specific cases, the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Indiana is generally two years from the date of the deceased victim’s passing.
It’s essential that surviving family members act promptly and consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible if they believe they have a legitimate wrongful death claim. Failing to file a lawsuit within the two-year statute of limitations window can result in the claim being barred, meaning family members can lose their legal right to pursue compensation for their loved one’s death.
LEARN MORE: Understanding the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death
How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Determined?
It’s impossible to place a dollar amount on losing a loved one. However, a wrongful death lawsuit can help relieve families of the financial burdens associated with the loss and provide some measure of justice, security, and peace of mind going forward.
Settlement amounts are typically determined through negotiations between the deceased’s surviving family members, the defendant or insurance company, and each party’s legal representation. The plaintiff’s attorney typically sends a demand letter to the defendant or their insurance company outlining details of the case, the damages suffered, and the amount of compensation sought. This demand sets the initial negotiating point, and the defendant or their insurance provider and council can respond with a counteroffer.
Factors such as the strength of the case’s evidence, liability assessments, and the likelihood of trial success are among the factors considered during settlement negotiations. In some specific instances, there are damage caps that can limit the amount a victim’s family can receive.
LEARN MORE: How is Wrongful Death Compensation Calculated?
Who Receives Payment in a Wrongful Death Settlement?
In Indiana, the individuals eligible to receive payment in a wrongful death lawsuit settlement are determined by state law. Eligibility criteria typically include:
- Personal Representative of the Estate – The personal representative or executor of the deceased’s estate, usually a spouse or close relative, is typically the primary party for bringing forward a wrongful death lawsuit.
- Surviving Family Members – Proceeds from a wrongful death settlement are typically distributed to eligible family members, including:
- Spouse: The surviving spouse is generally entitled to the proceeds of a wrongful death settlement. Part of the settlement may also be allocated to the deceased’s estate so spouses and family don’t have to worry about expenses such as medical bills, funeral costs, and legal fees.
- Children: If minor children are eligible to receive a portion of the settlement, the court may appoint a legal guardian or conservator to manage and protect their interests until they reach the age of 18.
- Other Family Dependents: Other family members who were financially dependent on the deceased, such as parents or stepchildren, may also be eligible for compensation if they can demonstrate their prior dependence.
LEARN MORE: Who’s Eligible to Get Money in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
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