What is the duration of a wrongful death claim?
I understand that for my clients suffering grief after losing their loved one, nothing would be better for them emotionally, than to resolve the wrongful death claim of their deceased as quickly as possible. While I want to honor the requests and desires of my clients, I hope this blog helps people in this situation maintain an objective viewpoint of the wrongful death lawsuit and understand the legal perspective of handling a wrongful death claim. I also hope this blog reminds clients that while there are reasons why a wrongful death claim may potentially require several years to resolve, the bottom line is, my client needs to take care of their grieving and healing process irregardless of the wrongful death claim. It is your attorney’s job to fight for you. Your attorney is handling the claim to reduce your stress. Nonetheless, while you may be grieving, understanding what your lawyer is doing and understanding the process can help one go through the process with a greater dignity, peace and understanding.
Some wrongful death claims do resolve relatively quickly. Why do some wrongful death claims resolve quickly? In part, there are times when responsible insurance companies clearly see the fault of their insured and are themselves desirous of moving things along. Both the wrongful death lawyer, the party that caused the wrongful death and the client are grateful for understanding and compassionate insurance adjusters.
Another circumstance where a wrongful death claim settles quickly after an auto accident is if the responsible party for the accident is clearly at fault and has minimal insurance limits. In this scenario, many insurance carriers will simply pay the minimal limits upon demand. While, the claim in this situation resolves quickly, the unfortunate situation here is that a person may lose their loved one and recover nearly nothing.
However, if after quickly resolving claim against the responsible partyies minimal policy, a wrongful death lawyer may be able to pursue another claim for the deceased person’s relative if there is additional coverage through their own auto insurance policy with underinsured motorist coverage greater than the minimal $15k that the responsible party had. Depending on the under insured policy limits involved, (in other words, is there another $25k available or $1M available) will play a role in determining how long the next phase of the claim will take. When the responsible party has a larger insurance policy or a large underinsured motorist policy, it may take 18 months to 3 years to resolve a claim, as more money is being asked.
Why is this the case? Your wrongful death lawyer would like nothing more than to move it along if their office could. However, in claims where large amounts of money are available, the defendant insurance company may use any evidentiary, procedural or tactical maneuvers to reduce the amount they are being asked to pay out on the wrongful death claim. Additionally, to obtain the funds satisfactory evidence must be presented for a judge or jury to award a larger settlement.
Besides the amount of money available, some wrongful death claims are complex for other reasons. For instance, if a person dies in a claim where liability is disputed or the deceased is accused of bearing some responsibility for their death, an insurance company may feel that such circumstances allow them to fight the claim and let a jury or mediator decide liability and value. If the insurance carrier for the responsible party chooses to fight, the legal process legally requires each party participate in various hearings and discovery processes. This process takes time. Besides the process itself taking time, Courts have busy schedules and all parties may simply have to wait some time to pass until they get a day before the Court.
In what instances would an auto accident case be complex due to disputed liability? Liability can be disputed, if our loved one was not wearing a seatbelt, was using their cellphone albeit on speakerphone or using a wireless device or perhaps there may be claims that our loved one overcorrected while driving and bear some responsibility for their death. Liability may also be contested when the accident involves multiple cars. Fingers may be pointed as to who in fact caused the impact resulting in death. In these cases, depositions will be held to determine what parties and witnesses say occurred to determine liability. If liability is the only factor delaying a wrongful death claim, then after depositions, a claim may be resolved without a trial. If the insurance companies are not convinced of liability, they may choose to move forward and allow a jury to determine liability.
Wrongful death claims can also take time to resolve as parties may dispute the value of the claim. Your wrongful death attorney and yourself place a high value on the life of your loved one. The insurance company does not have the same valuation of our loved one. Besides this, the insurance company, the judge or juror hearing the claim, has a difficult job in having to place a dollar amount on each life. (We know this thought may be emotionally disturbing to hear and believe me, it is disturbing to write but it is a truth that needs to be understood as simply part of our legal process.)
From a legal perspective, there must be convincing arguments made demonstrating the value of the deceased’s life. The value in part is based on the projected life expectancy of our loved one. Was our loved one a 25 year old or 80 years old? What was the current quality of life for that person? What was the current health of our loved one? Was our loved one a caretaker or a member of society that contributed to charity and volunteered? What is the life span of our loved ones relatives? Was your loved one a primary caregiver for a special needs child, a sick spouse or elderly parent? Will someone now have to be hired by the family to care for the responsibilities your loved one performed for the family? Insurance companies may use statistical data or the fact that our loved one had pre-existing diseases and/or a high risk rate for a fatal disease to attempt to diminish the life expectancy or the value of their contribution to the household thus lowering the amount they believe should be paid. Your wrongful death attorney needs to fight each of these claims that attempt to reduce the value of our loved one while at the same time submit evidence that increases the value of our loved one.
Additionally, part of wrongful death claims, and potentially a large portion of a claim, includes the recovery for potential lost wages that the deceased will no longer be able to provide the family with. Again, this part of a claim is highly contested on both sides. To fight for these funds, data must be obtained and analyzed and presented to determine a numerical value for these potential lost wages.
Your attorney will have a greater battle to fight for future lost wages if our loved one has one of the following circumstances. For instance, what if your loved one stopped working to care for children and did not have a work history for the last several years perhaps decades? What if our loved one had been unemployed for some time? Was our love one on disability or unemployment? What if our loved one was involved in a form of employment that has the potential to be phased out due to technological advances? Was our loved one a child who has no work history? Was our loved one working a low paying job but attending college with the hopes of obtaining improved employment? Was our loved one just out of school with no work history? Was our loved one an artist, singer or actor whose wages are sporadic? Does our loved one support the family with various jobs? Time is needed to obtain data to respond to these claim made to diminish the case. Experts need to be deposed and this also takes time. Allowing your attorney time to fight and present evidence will result in a better settlement for your.
Once a claim is filed in court, the claim is on the ‘court calendar.’ The court calendar sets out a certain amount of time to handle each phase and parties must follow the court calendar until they get to the next phase. Each phase has its own set amount of time to conclude. The phases include 1) the filing of a complaint 2) serving the complaint 3) defense responding to the complaint 4) Discovery – which includes interrogatories, production of documents and depositions 5) pre trial: court conferences and the assignment of a trial date 6) Trial, Mediation and/or Arbitration and 7) Post trial matters which may involve an appeal.
If your loved one lost their life due to the negligence of another, I am truly sorry. Please call my law firm, the Edward A Smith Law Offices, immediately at (916) 694-0002 locally or (800) 404-5400 toll-free for advice on how to proceed forward.