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Filing and Settling a Wrongful Death Claim

Money cannot replace a loved one who dies tragically. But it may provide help for the medical bills, funeral costs and the loss of income from the person who died. If the survivors believe the death was due to the negligent, reckless or intentional actions of another person or entity, they may seek economic and punitive damages.

Wrongful death lawsuits can be filed after medical malpractice, an accident on the premises of a business, a fatal car crash involving a drunk driver, the distribution of dangerous pharmaceutical products and other events.

Examples of Types of Wrongful Death 
Cases that Went to Trial

1. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against an amusement park after an 11-year-old girl fell from a Ferris wheel. Her parents argued the park should not have operated the Ferris wheel in high winds; should have had better restraints; and should not have allowed the child to ride alone.

2. A jury awarded a widow $4 million after a forklift accident killed her husband at work.

3. A jury awarded $10 million to the family of a college football player who died while training. The lawsuit alleged the 19-year-old died due to organ damage sustained during intense conditioning.

4. A judge ordered a man convicted of killing his wife to pay $850,000 to his stepson for the wrongful death of his mother.

5. A jury awarded $2 million in a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit after a man died undergoing a cardiac exercise stress test.

The laws governing wrongful death cases vary from state to state. Some states place “caps” or limits on the amount of damages. Wrongful death lawsuits are often settled out of court. When this happens, a court must approve the amount of a settlement (sometimes called “compromise settlement”) and the method of distribution. The purpose of this approval is to safeguard the rights and estates of distributees, including minor children and incapacitated individuals. A court must decide if a settlement is fair and in the best interests of the individuals receiving the money.

There may be some objections to the settlement from interested parties, because the estate has some debts or because other individuals believe they may have a claim to a portion of the settlement.

In order to arrive at a decision about the amount and distributions of a settlement, the court generally asks the petitioners a number of questions, including:

  • The amount of the settlement,
  • The names of survivors, their ages, and their relationship to the decedent,
  • The names of minor children, as well as their letters of guardianship,
  • Whether any of the survivors are incapacitated,
  • The decedent’s age, occupation and place of employment (the court examines the loss of income the deceased individual would have earned if they had survived to an average life expectancy),
  • The injuries that caused the decedent’s death,
  • The location of the injury and hospital,
  • The decedent’s funeral and medical costs,
  • The name of the insurance company, maximum insurance amount and policy coverage,
  • A listing of the decedent’s assets, and
  • The reason for acceptance of the settlement.

The calculation of damages can be complex. In addition to economic damages, survivors may be eligible for damages due to mental anguish, as well as factors such as the loss of companionship, love, protection and guidance from the deceased. The ability to collect such damages depends on state law.

If you have questions about a wrongful death case, consult with your attorney. Keep in mind there are statutes of limitations and other deadlines that may affect a case, so time is of the essence. Your attorney can explain who can file a wrongful death claim, whether a case has merit, and what type of damages might be possible.