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Wrongful Death


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Wrongful death is death caused by a wrongful act or negligence of a person or entity and that serves as the basis for a civil action for damages on behalf of the deceased’s heirs.

Wrongful Death Versus Criminal Homicide

While both wrongful death and criminal homicide involve the death of an individual, distinct differences in the terms of court proceedings separate them. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the estate of the deceased attempts to recover damages in a civil court proceeding. In a criminal homicide lawsuit, a state prosecutor seeks a prison sentence for the accused. Both proceedings can occur for the same death.

In a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is more likely than not liable by a preponderance of evidence. However, in a criminal homicide claim, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This results in a higher burden of proof than in a civil court proceeding for wrongful death.

Pecuniary Loss

In a wrongful death, the defendant may be liable for pecuniary losses incurred by the family members as a result of the death. Compensation of damages is usually limited to spouses, children and, in some cases, parents. Compensation may include:

  • lost earnings
  • medical and funeral expenses
  • financial support the deceased may have provided in the future
  • non-economic damages such as pain and suffering

Certain situations in a wrongful death case may result in minimal recoveries by the deceased’s family. One instance of minimal recovery is when the deceased is an elderly person and holds minimal future earnings. When the deceased is a child, the speculative future earnings can make calculating damages difficult.

Punitive Damages

Sometimes, punitive damages are awarded as punishment in cases of malicious wrongdoing. In most states, punitive damages cannot be awarded in a wrongful death settlement. However, specific statutes in certain states allow the recovery of such damages. In other states, a court may determine that such damages are permissible.

Last update: Sept. 25, 2008

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