What is Wrongful Death Law?

If criminal charges fail, a civil case may be possible

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 30, 2023

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Losing a loved one is always difficult, and it can be made even more so by knowing that someone else’s actions caused your loved one’s death. While your state may decide to pursue criminal charges against the person who caused the death, you might want to bring a civil case against them, too—especially if losing your loved one has caused a financial hardship with funeral expenses and burial expenses.

This can be an overwhelming decision; the following is designed to give you an overview, so you can feel comfortable speaking with a wrongful death attorney.


A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil lawsuit for economic damages after the negligent or intentional actions of a party caused the death of someone else. The damages in a wrongful death lawsuit are awarded to the deceased person’s beneficiaries. These cases are often filed if a criminal action has failed or has not been brought, and they are governed by state statutes—meaning they may vary from state to state.

Who Can Sue?

In most states, an action for wrongful death can only be brought by a beneficiary who is a member of a class specified by state law. For example, if the wrongful death statute grants the right to sue to the spouse and then to the decedent’s children, only the surviving spouse can sue. If the deceased person’s spouse is no longer alive, the children will then be permitted to sue. Other states only allow the decedent’s estate to bring a wrongful death action. These actions are then brought by the representative of the estate to seek compensation for losses the estate suffered because of the decedent’s death.

What to Prove?

A successful wrongful death lawsuit will prove that the death of a human being was caused by another’s negligence, or with the intent to cause harm, and that the death resulted in monetary injury to the surviving family members.


Negligence is the failure to behave with the level of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in the same or a similar situation. The appropriate level of care varies based on the situation. For example, doctors are held to a special standard defined by the local medical community. Negligence is the basis of many medical malpractice, car accident, and personal injury cases. Each of these causes of action can change to a wrongful death action when the victim dies.

Intent to Cause Harm

Actions taken with the intent to cause harm can usually be classified as intentional torts. Common intentional torts that can result in a wrongful death action include assault and battery. Many intentional torts also have a criminal counterpart, but criminal proceedings are different from wrongful death actions in that they can result in jail time instead of monetary damages. Additionally, the burden of proof is much higher in criminal prosecutions (where the state must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt) than it is in civil cases (where the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence).

Common Examples

You may want to consider discussing your loss with a lawyer to assess whether you have a wrongful death case. In making this decision, you might find it helpful to know what kinds of situations frequently form the basis of a wrongful death action:

  • Motor vehicle accidents, including car, truck, and motorcycle accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Product defects (product liability claim)
  • Workplace hazards and exposures
  • Violent actions or recklessness
  • Nursing home abuse and neglect

Common Questions

If you are considering legal action, here are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with a wrongful death lawyer for the first time.

  1. Can I bring a wrongful death claim against someone who was convicted in a criminal case?
  2. Who can sue for wrongful death?
  3. How do you prove wrongful death suit?
  4. Who gets the money in a wrongful death lawsuit?
  5. What damages are available?
  6. What is the difference between a wrongful death action and a survival action?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who has experience with wrongful death actions.

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Navigating the legal system can be overwhelming, especially in the wake of a loss. You might find yourself facing statutes of limitations before you’re even sure you have a case. An experienced attorney can guide you through the process, and help you assess whether you have a case and who you can hold legally responsible for your loss. Your lawyer can also help you interview witnesses, obtain medical records and evaluate settlement offers.

A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. They can also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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