What Is Wrongful Death, and How Can Loved Ones Recover From It?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, accidents are the third leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017, 169,936 people died from unintentional injuries. While some accidents are unavoidable, far too many tragedies occur as a result of someone’s negligence. The death of a loved one can leave surviving family members with overwhelming grief and mounting financial expenses. If you have lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, a wrongful death attorney can help you learn more about your rights.
The Legal Definition of Wrongful Death
A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action filed by the survivors of a person killed as a result of another person’s or corporation’s negligence or intentional actions. Florida law allowing for these actions aims to shift the losses resulting from the wrongful death from the surviving beneficiaries to the wrongdoer.
Under Florida statutes, a representative of the estate of a deceased person can file a wrongful death claim if their loved one died as a direct result of another party’s actions and the deceased would have had a legal claim to damages had he or she not died. Wrongful death actions arise from a wide variety of accidents, including:
- Motor vehicle accidents involving cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles;
- Pedestrian and bicycle accidents;
- Workplace accidents, particularly on construction sites and in heavy industry;
- Amusement park accidents;
- Nursing home abuse or neglect;
- Intentional harm, such as assaults; and
- Medical malpractice.
Car Accidents and Wrongful Death
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic accidents are the 13th leading cause of death in the United States. When it comes to unintentional accidents, motor vehicle accidents rank as the second leading cause of death. For persons aged 8 through 24, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death.
There are a variety of causes of motor vehicle accidents. Many accidents are preventable and are the result of someone else’s negligent actions. Common causes for fatal motor vehicle accidents include:
- Driving under the influence: When someone chooses to drink and drive, they do so knowing how dangerous their actions are. A recent report from the Insurance Information Institute found that driving under the influence contributed to 29 percent of all traffic fatalities in Florida. Alcohol slows down a driver’s reaction time, interferes with concentration, and can affect the driver’s judgment.
- Speeding: In 2017 9,717 people were killed because of a speeding driver. This accounted for over a quarter of all traffic fatalities. Speeding can increase the amount of stopping distance necessary, make it harder to control the vehicle, and reduces a driver’s reaction time.
- Distracted driving: Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of car accidents across the country. Taking your eyes off the road for just a few seconds can cause an accident. Texting and driving continues to cause thousands of accidents a year. Other examples of distracted driving include talking on the phone, adjusting the radio, talking to passengers, and eating while driving.
- Failure to yield: There are many examples of when a driver is required to yield to another driver or pedestrian. This includes left turns on green lights, right turns on red lights, when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, and at a stop sign. Drivers expect other drivers on the road to know when they are required to yield and to obey traffic laws. When a driver does not yield the right of way, the other driver may not have adequate time to respond.
- Manufacturer defects: Consumers rely on car manufacturers to build safe, reliable cars. But sometimes poor design or manufacturer defects can cause serious risk to drivers. In January 2019, Hyundai and Kia recalled approximately 168,000 vehicles because of a chance that the fuel line might start an engine fire. That same month, Toyota recalled nearly two million vehicles due to potentially faulty airbags.
- Poorly maintained roads: Properly maintained roads are an essential component of safe driving. Loose gravel, failing safety devices, and debris in the roadway can make it unsafe to drive.
- Improper, inadequate, or hidden signage: Drivers rely on road signs to know where to go and to warn them of hidden dangers such as unexpected dips or curves in the road. These signs are ineffective if they have been damaged, removed, or if they are hidden by an object such as a tree.
- Poor driving: Sadly, poor decision making and lack of experience contribute to thousands of accidents every day. New drivers don’t have the experience to react to unexpected circumstances and are statistically more likely to drive distracted or drive too fast. But it’s not just young drivers. Failure to signal, driving too fast for conditions, and aggressive driving can all cause an accident.
Who Can Bear Liability in a Wrongful Death Auto Accident?
When a loved one tragically dies in a car accident, the most obvious person to blame is the other driver. But sometimes others in addition to the other driver were at fault, or in other cases, other hazards may have caused the accident, meaning the other driver was not at fault at all. Depending on the circumstances of the accident, multiple parties may bear liability. An experienced wrongful death attorney can help you determine if you can hold other parties responsible. Below are a few examples of who can be found at fault:
- A government agency: State and city offices have a responsibility to properly maintain all public roads in their jurisdiction. They also have a duty to ensure that all signage is visible and in good condition.
- A trucking company: Federal law requires all truckers and trucking companies to follow set regulations regarding vehicle weight, load, and hours worked. A trucking company may be held liable if they intentionally caused a driver to violate these laws or if a lack of training led to the driver’s negligence.
- A vehicle manufacturer: A vehicle manufacturer will be held liable in the case of a product defect.
- A bartender or another adult serving alcohol: But only in limited circumstances. Unlike some states that assign blanket liability to bars that serve patrons who drink and then cause an accident, Florida’s dram shop law only allows parties injured by a drunk driver to hold a bartender or other adult who served the driver liable under two somewhat limited conditions. Anyone can be held liable for knowingly serving a person under the age of 21. A bartender (but not a casual “social host”) can also be held liable or for serving someone who is known to have an addiction to alcohol.
- Your loved one’s employer: In some circumstances, your loved one’s employer may hold some or all responsibility in an accident. This is usually the case when the employee was driving a poorly maintained or inadequate company vehicle.
Again, of course, car accidents represent only one of the many ways a wrongful death can occur. Consult with an experienced Florida wrongful death attorney if you have lost a loved one in any kind of tragic accident.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
A wrongful death lawsuit must be filed by a representative of the deceased’s estate. If the deceased did not appoint a representative in a will, only someone who had a direct relationship with the deceased and who had a reasonable expectation of companionship and support from that person is eligible to seek compensation in a wrongful death claim. By definition, this includes that person’s spouse, children, parents, and blood relatives who were dependent on support from the deceased. A child born out of wedlock of the father only has a claim for wrongful death if the father had recognized the responsibility for the child’s support. Parents can only file a claim for wrongful death if their child was under the age of 25.
Proving a Wrongful Death Claim
The death of a loved one in a tragic accident is almost always unexpected. While grieving and trying to understand the sudden loss of someone we love, it is easy to want to assign blame to someone else. But not all accidents result from someone else’s wrongdoing. To prove a wrongful death claim, your lawyer needs to be able to prove some fundamental facts:
Did the defendant have a duty to the deceased? In the simplest terms, legal liability for a wrongful death (or an injury, for that matter), first requires that the person who did wrong had a “duty” to the person harmed. In everyday life, all of us owe duties to each other not to cause harm intentionally. We also owe duties not to cause someone else harm by mistake. For instance:
- Homeowners and business owners have a duty to provide a safe place for invited visitors;
- Employers must provide a safe workplace for their employers;
- Doctors have a duty to meet the expected standard of care;
- Drivers are expected to follow traffic laws and drive safely;
But there is a limit to these duties. Someone who makes the best possible decision under difficult circumstances is not necessarily legally liable just because that decision turns out to be wrong and to hurt someone. An experienced personal injury and wrongful death lawyer can help you figure out whether your loved one’s death resulted from someone else’s bad decision (which the law generally calls “negligence”).
Did the defendant breach this duty? Accidents happen, but there may not always be someone to blame. For example, if your loved one is killed while visiting a friend’s house because a tree fell on the house, the accident is tragic, but there was likely nothing the homeowner could have done to prevent the accident. If the tree fell on your loved one because the homeowner paid no attention to where the tree might fall while cutting it down with a chainsaw, on the other hand, then this may represent a breach of a legal duty.
Did the other party’s actions cause the death? To be held legally liable for paying money damages, a defendant’s actions must have a direct link to the victim’s death. In other words, if the victim suffered an injury during a motor vehicle accident but died because of a medical error at the hospital, the other driver would not bear responsibility. As you might imagine, this is sometimes a question of degrees, and there isn’t always a single cause for the loss of your loved one’s life. An experienced wrongful death attorney can help you figure out whose actions contributed to a tragic loss of life enough to make them legally liable.
Florida law outlines a very specific list of recoverable damages in a wrongful death case. The types of damages a person can claim depends on their relationship with the deceased. The damages available may include:
- Loss of support: Loss of support includes any loss of income due to the death of a loved one. If your loved one was injured before their death, loss of support is broken into two parts, loss of support from the date of injury to the date of death (plus interest), and loss of future support. When calculating loss of support, your loved one’s age, their estimated income, and the survivor’s age will be taken into consideration.
- Loss of companionship: When a loved one dies, you lose someone who’s companionship gave you comfort. For a wrongful death suit, a spouse or child can claim loss of companionship. A parent can claim loss of companionship only if their child was a minor at the time of their death. Adult children may have a claim for loss of companionship if there is no surviving spouse.
- Mental pain and suffering: A surviving spouse can claim mental pain and suffering from the date of the initial injury.
- Medical expenses: If the deceased required medical care before their death, these costs are reimbursable to the person who paid the expenses.
- Funeral expenses: Like medical expenses, these expenses can only be recovered by the person who paid them.
Florida’s Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations sets the time limit for filing a legal action. For most personal injury cases in Florida, this timeframe is four years. BUT the period of time you have to file a claim for wrongful death is just two years beginning immediately upon death. This discrepancy in time limits can lead to some confusion: If your loved one had lived, he or she would have four years to pursue damages. But because of the loss of life, the time limit shrinks to just two years. This is why we always recommend talking to a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible to learn about your legal rights after the tragic death of a loved one.