Wrongful death is a legal term used to describe the death of a human being due to the negligence or misconduct of another individual, company or entity. A suit for wrongful death can only be brought by members of the immediate family, usually the spouse, child, or parent of the deceased. Every state has its own civil statutes that dictate the procedures for a suit of wrongful death. Actions for personal injury, conscious pain and suffering, or expenses related to the decedent's death, may be appended to an action for wrongful death.
Elements of a Lawsuit for Wrongful Death
The particular circumstances surrounding the death of a human being do not matter in a lawsuit for wrongful death. What matters are certain elements that must be present: (1) the death of a human being, (2) due to the negligence or intent to cause harm by another, (3) monetary injury to surviving family members as a result of the death; and, (4) an official representative for the estate of the deceased.
Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Financial injury is the main measure of damages in an action for wrongful death. This includes any type of loss that may lead to monetary loss. For example, the loss of the projected income of the deceased for the remainder of what would have been the deceased’s natural lifespan, or the value of personal services, such as those offered by a stay-at-home spouse or a parent.
Survival Actions for Personal Injury
Family members may also be able to bring a “survival action” for personal injury suffered by the decedent. The jury determines the amount of damages by considering: 1) the degree of consciousness, 2) severity of pain, 3) apprehension of impending death, and 4) duration of suffering.
Wrongful Death Cases
Because the jury has to determine the financial loss to the family incurred by the wrongful death, they have the difficult task of having to determine the “worth” to the family of the deceased. But how much is a life worth?
It is easier to estimate the financial loss to the family when an adult dies because there is some evidence on which to base the calculations. But when a child dies, it is all guesswork, for the jury has to “predict” what a child’s worth would have been had the child had a normal lifespan. In general, juries are not generous with their awards for damages in cases involving the wrongful death of a child.
Not every state allows for a wrongful death action when an unborn fetus dies; nor can the parents sue for emotional injury from losing the fetus.
There is also small relief for the wrongful death of an elderly person, because it is assumed that person no longer has significant earning potential.
A Wrongful Death
Recently, a man suffocated to death when several tons of beans fell on top of him at his workplace. Does the family have an action for wrongful death? That is, are all the elements present for an action for wrongful death?
Let us analyze the case. There was (1) the death of a human being and (2) surviving family members with monetary loss due to the wrongful death. Assuming that there is an official representative for the deceased’s estate, the only element of the case in contention is whether there was negligence involved. However, the relatives may not have to prove negligence by another to recover damages for they may be able to rely on the theory of res ipsa loquitur, which states that if it appears obvious from the circumstances that negligence was the most likely cause of the event leading to the injury, it is to be assumed by law to have been negligence. It appears that one would not normally expect to be buried in one’s workplace under tons of beans but for the presence of negligence in the part of another. Therefore, the family should be able to recover against the employer in an action for wrongful death.