Understanding When You May Have A Wrongful Death Claim
When someone dies, it's understandable that we look for something or someone on which to blame our tragic loss. However, according to law, there are strict definitions of when a death can be legally considered a 'Wrongful Death' and a lawsuit filed against the offending party(ies).
Put simply, a wrong death results when someone is killed as a result of the actions or missteps of another person or entity. The idea of being able to sue because of a Wrongful Death is a relatively new development, coming into being only in the last 100 years. Today, every state in the nation has provisions for filing a Wrongful Death lawsuit.
Some of the more common causes of Wrongful Death are:
Automobile accidents that result from someone's negligence or defective car parts (design or manufacture). According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 32,885 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics have been released. In order for the family of a car accident victim to be able to claim Wrongful Death the following four conditions must be met:
The other driver must be shown to have caused the accident.
It must be proven that the other driver acted negligently in causing the
The deceased must be survived by a spouse, children, or other dependents.
The death must have resulted in monetary losses.
Airplane Accidents resulting in death can result in a Wrongful Death claim if the pilot acted negligently, for example, if he or she were piloting the plane under the influence of drugs or alcohol or if the plane itself experienced an equipment malfunction.
Medical Malpractice resulting in death may be more common than you expect. According to the American Association of Justice, each year 98,000 people dies as a result of preventable medical errors.1 Medical malpractice is considered negligence and therefore can result in a Wrongful Death claim.
Product Liability resulting in death includes such things as a defective car, a crib that results in the death of a child, and a toy that is a choking hazard. Product liability can take several forms. It can be the result of a manufacturing defect, a design defect, or a failure to warn the public if the manufacturer, distributor or seller knows about a product's defect and attempts to keep it secret.
While workplace deaths are decreasing each year in the United States, in 2011 4,609 people died as a result of an accident in the workplace.2 Explosions, falls, burns, and slips can all result in a Wrongful Death if they are the result of negligence on the part of the company, the worksite, or equipment malfunction. Mining operations, construction sites and manufacturing plants are particularly common sites of accidents resulting in serious injury or death.
Who can file a Wrongful Death claim?
Obviously, persons who have died as a result of someone else's negligence cannot themselves file a Wrongful Death lawsuit. The suit must be filed by a representative on behalf of the survivors. Colorado law is quite restrictive about who can bring action in a Wrongful Death. Spouses have top priority. Children and parents who depended financially on the deceased also have limited rights. Brothers and sisters have no right to bring a Wrongful Death claim in Colorado.
What damages may be awarded in a Wrongful Death claim?
There are severe limitations on the damages a family can recover from a Wrongful Death action. Cases of medical malpractice, and cases against liquor retailers and the government are even more restrictive. It is common for plaintiffs in a Wrongful Death case to receive economic damages and damages for sorrow and loss of companionship. Economic damages include such things as medical bills, funeral expenses, and loss of wage and earning abilities. Non-economic damages are limited to $341,250 in Colorado. In the case of medical malpractice, non-economic damages are capped at $250,000.
Of special interest, in Colorado there can be only one civil action brought for Wrongful Death of one decedent. Every claim must be included in the same action. The caps on damages apply to the entire case, so no matter how many people are included in the case, the cap holds.
For more information about Wrongful Death, the rights of survivors and how best to pursue legal action against negligent parties in a Wrongful Death situation, contact the lawyers of Bachus & Schanker, LLC by phone at (303) 322-4300 or 866-224-7089. You may also reach us by email.
1. American Association for Justice, "Medical Negligence: The Role of America's Civil Justice System in Protecting Patients' Rights," February 2011.