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Wrongful Death

Who May Sue, Immunity From Suit, Damages, Limitations On Recovery Of DamagesThe Defendant's Responsibility

The taking of the life of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent act of another person or persons.

If a person is killed because of the wrongful conduct of a person or persons, the decedent's heirs and other beneficiaries may file a wrongful death action against those responsible for the decedent's death. This area of TORT LAW is governed by statute. Wrongful death statutes vary from state to state, but in general they define who may sue for wrongful death and what, if any, limits may be applied to an award of damages.

Originally, wrongful death statutes were created to provide financial support for widows and orphans and to motivate people to exercise care to prevent injuries. A wrongful death action is separate and apart from criminal charges, and neither proceeding affects nor controls the other. This means that a defendant acquitted of murder may be sued in a civil action by the victim's family for wrongful death.

An action for wrongful death may be brought for either an intentional or unintentional act that causes an injury that results in death. A blow to the head during an altercation that later results in death is an injury that is intentionally caused. The driver of an automobile who unintentionally causes the death of another in an accident may be held liable for NEGLIGENCE. An individual who, in violation of local law, neglects to enclose a swimming pool in his yard can be held liable for the omission or failure to act if a child is attracted to the pool and subsequently drowns.

Wrongful death statutes do not apply to an unborn fetus, as an individual does not have a distinct legal status until he is born alive. If an infant is born alive and later dies as a result of an injury that occurred prior to birth, an action may be brought for wrongful death.

The Defendant's Responsibility

In order to sue for wrongful death, it must be proven that the acts or omissions of the defendant were the proximate cause of the decedent's injuries and death. This means that the defendant's wrongful conduct must have created a natural, direct series of events that led to the injury.

FURTHER READINGS

Dombroff, Mark A. 2000. Evaluating and Reserving Wrongful Death and Personal Injury Cases. Tucson, Az.: Lawyers & Judges Publishing.

Critical Issues—Wrongful Death: Annotations from the ALR System. 1990. Rochester, N.Y.: Lawyers Cooperative.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal Information