How Wrongful Death is Proven

Understand the elements of a wrongful death claim

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on August 22, 2022

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Wrongful death is when someone dies due to another person’s negligence or intentional actions. The party responsible doesn’t have to be a particular individual–companies and manufacturers can also be at fault.

Wrongful death claims are civil lawsuits, typically brought by the deceased person’s surviving family members or estate, against the person responsible for the death.

Wrongful death cases are separate from criminal cases and can be pursued with or without criminal charges. Whereas criminal cases aim to punish the person responsible for another’s death, wrongful death lawsuits are civil in nature and aim to compensate surviving family members with monetary damages.

There are “a lot of nuances and regulations and rules to follow in wrongful death and survival actions” and it’s “imperative” to get “a lawyer who’s familiar with personal injury law [involved] in these cases,” says personal injury lawyer Jason M. Lichtenstein.

What Causes Wrongful Death?

The most common causes of wrongful death include:

Regardless of the underlying cause of death, plaintiffs in a wrongful death case must show the death resulted from someone’s negligence or intentional actions.

What Are Wrongful Death Laws?

Every state has a wrongful death statute that sets the legal requirements of wrongful death, including:

  • Who can sue on behalf of the deceased
  • What has to be proven in a wrongful death case
  • The burden of proof the plaintiff must meet
  • What damages are available for surviving spouses or others bringing a suit

Wrongful death statutes generally apply the same legal rules for negligence and liability that would apply in a personal injury case, if the person were alive and injured.

How is Wrongful Death Proven?

Despite variations in state laws, the general elements of wrongful death are:

  • The death of an individual
  • Caused by another person or entity’s negligence or intentional actions
  • Monetary damages for the deceased person’s surviving family members

The Elements of Negligence

As in any personal injury claim, to prove someone was negligent in wrongful death, four elements must be established:

  • Duty of Care. The person responsible for the other person’s death had a duty to act with reasonable care. Expectations about what conduct is reasonable or expected vary from one context to another. For example, everyone is expected to drive safely when operating their car, while doctors are expected to act according to medical guidelines in their role as a physician.
  • Breach of duty. The person failed to exercise reasonable care in their actions. For example, someone drove recklessly or didn’t operate machinery in accordance with safety guidelines. In other cases, maybe a product was designed or manufactured in a shoddy way, and the faulty product is what caused injury or death.
  • Causation. The person’s failure to exercise reasonable care is what caused the other person’s death. Say someone causes a car accident that breaks a person’s arm. A month passes, and the person with the broken arm dies from a lung infection. In this case, the car accident isn’t what caused the person’s death, even though it happened close to the death. For the person who caused the accident to be liable for the other person’s death, the car accident would have to be the direct cause of the person’s death.
  • Damages. The person’s negligence resulted in actual injuries or losses for the victim (in this case, death).

What is the Burden of Proof in a Wrongful Death Case?

In criminal cases, the burden of proof is on the state to prove a defendant committed a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a fairly difficult standard for prosecutors to meet.

In a civil case for wrongful death, the burden of proof is less stringent. It’s called a “preponderance of the evidence.” Basically, it requires a judge or jury to be 51 percent sure based on the evidence presented.

Wrongful Death Damages

Wrongful death damages are the monetary compensation that survivors can get for the death of their loved one. Damages can cover a variety of expenses, including:

  • Loss of income
  • Medical bills
  • Funeral expenses
  • Burial costs
  • Loss of companionship
  • Loss of financial support

The damages you can get in a wrongful death action depend on various factors, including your state’s laws and the specific facts of your case.

Questions for a Wrongful Death Lawyer

If you are considering a wrongful death lawsuit for the death of a loved one, it’s essential to speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.

Fortunately, many attorneys give free consultations. These meetings are a great resource for both attorney and client because they allow the attorney to hear the facts of the case while the client can determine if the attorney and law firm meets their needs.

The best way to decide whether an attorney is the right fit is by asking informed questions. Here are some good questions to ask during your initial conversations:

  • What are your attorneys’ fees?
  • What billing options do you offer?
  • What is the statute of limitations in a wrongful death claim?
  • What is my brain injury claim worth?
  • What are the chances of a brain injury settlement?

Once you discuss your case with a lawyer, you can decide whether to hire them and begin an attorney-client relationship.

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It’s important to find the right attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

For wrongful death, look for a personal injury lawyer with experience in wrongful death cases.

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