The death of a loved one is not only emotionally taxing but may also cause significant economic hardships. It may seem like an impossible task to place a value on a person's life. However, wrongful death damages awarded in a lawsuit are intended to unburden the members of the surviving family from their losses.
For instance, economic losses can be accounted for if the person was an earning member of the family.
Depending on the type of loss faced due to a wrongful death, damages can be either compensatory or punitive.
Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death Damages?
Damages are usually awarded to immediate family members. Depending on the case and the relationships of the deceased with the family, the court typically awards damages to parents, children and spouses.
They are usually the surviving family that is directly affected -- financially and otherwise.
They are also likely to claim wrongful death damages for the loss of care and companionship.
Those who can sue include:
- Spouses, for instance, can claim for emotional trauma and loss of companionship.
- Young children, on the other hand, may be awarded damages for the loss of a parent's support and comfort.
- Parents can also claim such damages for the loss of a relationship. However, it may be more likely for them to receive damages if the deceased child was a minor.
In case there are is no surviving spouse or child, any person that would be entitled to the property due to intestate succession can file a wrongful death lawsuit. This includes surviving parents or siblings.
Any person who can show that they are financially dependent on the deceased may also claim damages. Apart from the deceased's parents, it can also include a "putative spouse", children of the putative spouse and step-children.
Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations refers to the specific time period within which a claim must be filed. Most personal injury claims have a strict statute of limitations in every state.
In California, the wrongful death statute of limitations is two years.
In some states, however, the statute of limitations depends on the "date of discovery". This refers to the moment the harm is discovered.
The two years are then counted since this date. Depending on your state, the statute of limitations can be referred and adhered to.
1. Compensatory Damages Awarded
Damages intended to compensate for the loss of the deceased is the most common type of damages awarded in wrongful death lawsuits.
Compensatory wrongful death damages attempt to compensate the financial and non-financial burden of the surviving family members.
They can compensate for:
Objective losses (that can be accounted for by bills) or intangible losses (such as pain or trauma).
Both are equally valid and considered in every wrongful death case.
Compensatory Financial Losses:
These are the easiest to calculate as they can be associated with an objective amount of money. They can be current losses (in the form of bills) or estimated financial losses.
Beneficiaries can usually claim the following financial damages:
- The cost of medical treatment: The person is usually rushed to the emergency room in such cases and may receive significant medical treatment before passing away. The ambulance costs are also combined with the cost of treatment.
- Funeral costs: These can also be expensive. They place a significant financial strain on the family.
- If the deceased was the primary wage earner of the family, the family's lost wages are covered: Income is determined by: the anticipated income, life expectancy, other earning members of the family and so on. Other benefits are also compensated for (like retirement benefits, pension plans, healthcare, etc.) and are calculated by the court.
- If the deceased was a stay-at-home parent, compensation must be provided for the care of a house and/or child: Expenses of housekeeping, child care and other domestic tasks are taken into consideration.
Compensatory Non-financial Losses:
These are likely in extreme cases of wrongful death. Since they are significantly difficult to estimate, they are only awarded in specific cases. For instance, if a family member has witnessed the wrongful death of their loved one, the emotional loss is considered to be far higher and needs to be compensated.
There are two common claims for non-financial losses:
- Emotional distress: It is a significant outcome of the death of a loved one. Compensation for pain and suffering can be awarded to family members experiencing significant trauma from the wrongful death of their loved one.
- Loss of consortium: This is another claim allowed in some states (like California). It refers to the loss of companionship or love. As above, it may be applicable in the case of a child who has lost their parent’s guidance and care due to their wrongful death. It is also a common claim for spouses who have lost their partner.
2. Punitive Damages Awarded
Punitive damages are usually reserved for those people who have engaged in particularly malicious or reckless behavior that has resulted in the death of a person.
Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for their negligence or wrongful actions.
They serve as a deterrent for future behavior. They can also bring a sense of justice to the grieving family members.
In some cases, punitive damages can be in the form of treble damages (three times the amount of actual damages). They can be recovered in the case of the death of an elderly person caused by the negligence or abuse of a nursing home.
In California, punitive wrongful death damages are usually not awarded unless the deceased was killed due to a felony homicide.
Survival Action in a Wrongful Death Suit
In California, a wrongful death claim is often combined with the “survival action” claim. The survival lawsuit can compensate a deceased person’s estate for the wrongful death.
While the wrongful death lawsuit intends to compensate the surviving family of the deceased, the survival action lawsuit allows them to sue on behalf of the deceased.
For instance, the deceased may have suffered from injuries that caused death. If these injuries were suffered by the deceased for even a short period of time, it is a valid reason to file a survival lawsuit.
The survival lawsuit can also include punitive damages. For this reason, they are often clubbed together when the death has been caused by the same wrongful act.
How Much Can Be Collected?
Each case of wrongful death is unique, and hence it is difficult to estimate an average amount for these damages. They are calculated depending on the type and severity of loss.
Given that there are so many different aspects to calculating damages, there is a grave concern of collecting the total amount of damages. Often, the plaintiffs must consider the amount that can be realistically collected from the defendant (or their insurance company).
A homeowner’s insurance policy can also be limited in their personal and premises liability coverage. These damages are dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Therefore, when calculating damages, it is important to assess the defendant’s assets and insurance policy. This is done to avoid spending time and effort on litigation when the damages cannot be collected.
Calculating Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Each wrongful death case is unique. The circumstances of the wrongful death and the situation of the surviving family can influence the calculation of wrongful death damages.
Since this can be complicated, economists and actuaries can be consulted for the accurate estimation of damages.
They consider the following in their compensation calculation:
- Medical bills, funeral and burial costs and other expenses the surviving family had/have to pay.
- Income of the deceased (including the expected income they may have contributed if not for their untimely death).
- Benefits such as healthcare, pension plans etc. that the surviving family was expected to enjoy if not for the death of the deceased.
- Trauma, pain and loss of companionship/support.
- Loss of potential inheritances.
Apart from this, other complex factors must also be considered to accurately estimate the actual financial loss. For instance, estimating the possible future financial contribution of the deceased depends on various factors. The court may consider the character of the person (were they likely to save, how much do they contribute to the home, etc.).
Calculating non-financial and punitive damages can also be difficult and is usually not awarded unless it is a wrongful death case of extreme or extraordinary circumstance.
These cases make one of the most complicated and challenging lawsuits. The wrongful death damages to be recovered from such a lawsuit requires careful and detailed assessment. An experienced wrongful death lawyer can not only estimate the nature and extent of your losses but also ensure you recover the amount you deserve for your loss.
If you suspect that the death of a loved one was caused by negligence or malpractice, consult one of our experienced personal injury attorneys to assist you in claiming damages for a wrongful death.Request a Free Consultation NO COST, we don't make a dime unless you do!