Merriam-Webster defines wrongful death as “a death caused by the negligent, willful, or wrongful act, neglect, omission, or default of another.” It is a legal term and it does include murder – in fact, sometimes a civil trial for monetary damages will occur after the related criminal trial has concluded. Civil trials have a less stringent standard of proof than criminal, so – such as in the famous O.J. Simpson trials – a person may be found financially liable for the wrongful death of another, even if he or she was not found guilty of murder.
Other common instances that may result in “wrongful death” are: motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice (the negligence of a physician or other health care provider results in the death of a patient), criminal activities, hazardous recreational activities, and workplace/occupational injury that leads to death.
A wrongful death civil suit can only be brought by the heirs of the decedent and damages are based on the economic losses suffered by the survivor(s) that are a result of the wrongful death. An example is a widow may sue a negligent party for the wrongful death of her husband. Part of her damages may include his future lost wages. This financial injury is usually the main portion of damages in a wrongful death suit. Aside from lost wages, the financial damages would also include funeral expenses. Part of the job of the jury in these cases is determining the value of the decedent’s future lost income. In most cases, the estate of the decedent will offer a financial expert to testify in that regard. Even if the decedent was unemployed at the time of death, it will be argued that he or she would at some point be employed and the heirs are entitled to recovery of that future loss.
Another area of damages that may arise in wrongful death cases are punitive damage. “Punitive” means “with the intention to punish”. Punitive damages may be requested in cases involving egregious wrong acts with the intent to punish the wrongdoer and also to serve as a deterrent to others who may in the future commit similar acts. Some states do not allow punitive damages in wrongful death cases, but others do. An experienced wrongful death attorney can help you navigate these complex issues.
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