When someone dies because of the negligent or intentional actions of another person, surviving family members may file a wrongful death lawsuit to recover compensation for their losses. Wrongful death lawsuits are filed in civil court and can be won regardless of the outcome of a criminal case against the wrongdoer. Since these types of cases can require expert testimony, extensive evidence, and intense litigation, many people hire an experienced wrongful death lawyer to guide them through the legal process and help them understand how to prove wrongful death.
What Is Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is the death of a human being that is caused by the negligent or intentional actions of another party. Incidents that may give rise to wrongful death lawsuits include, but are not limited to:
- Vehicular manslaughter
- Medical malpractice
- Slip and fall accidents
A wrongful death lawsuit provides surviving family members a way to seek justice on behalf of a loved one who is deceased because of carelessness or violence on the part of someone else. Even though the victim dies, the law allows the claims to continue and allows them to receive compensation for the economic and emotional impact of that death. A wrongful death lawsuit is different from a survival action. In a survival action, the parties may recover the financial award that the deceased person would have received had he or she lived.
What Elements Does the Plaintiff Have to Prove in a Wrongful Death Case?
Not all accidental deaths qualify for a wrongful death lawsuit. To file a wrongful death claim, four elements must exist:
- A human being died
- The death was caused by another party’s wrongful or negligent act
- The plaintiff has a legal right to file a wrongful death claim
- The plaintiff suffered damages
To prove wrongful death, the plaintiff must show how that a human being died. Your lawyer may use your loved one’s death certificate or medical records as evidence of the death.
The plaintiff must also show that the defendant’s negligent or intentional actions caused the person to die. In some cases, surveillance videos and witness statements serve as evidence to prove how someone died. In other cases, a wrongful death lawyer may use the testimony of medical experts or accident reconstructionists to prove how a victim died.
To recover compensation, you will also need to prove that you have the legal right to file a wrongful death claim. When the death of any person is caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another, the heirs of the decedent and the personal representatives of the decedent may each maintain an action for damages against the person who caused the death.
Finally, you must demonstrate that the defendant’s actions resulted in damages. In wrongful death lawsuits, damages may include hospital bills or medical expenses, funeral or burial expenses, loss of financial support, and intangible losses like loss of companionship, parental guidance, and affection.
Common Causes of Wrongful Death
There are a variety of cases that fall under wrongful death, including medical malpractice; auto, truck or motorcycle accidents; occupational hazards and exposures; product defects; abuse and/or neglect at assisted living or nursing home facilities; and violent criminal activities.
For instance, pedestrian accidents can encompass a variety of situations, such as hit-and-run accidents, a driver failing to yield to the right-of-way of a pedestrian, or a driver running a stop sign.
Because these are civil cases and not criminal cases, the burden of proof is lower and does not require a person to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, winning a wrongful death case still requires your wrongful death attorney to implement a strategy to demonstrate that, more likely than not, the defendant caused your loved one to die.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In Nevada, the law allows the following parties to take someone to civil court for wrongful death:
- The executor of the person’s estate
- Surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children of the deceased
- Parents of the deceased, if there is no surviving spouse or child
- Siblings of the deceased, if there is no surviving spouse, child, or parent
- The next closest family member of the deceased, if there is no surviving spouse, child, parent, or sibling
If other parties can demonstrate to the courts that they financially depended on the deceased, they might also have grounds to file a wrongful death claim.
What Are the Limitations on Wrongful Death Settlements?
Wrongful death lawsuits have a statute of limitations, which is a deadline by which the suit must be filed. In Nevada, that statute of limitations is two years of the date of the deceased person’s death. The reason for a statute of limitations is to provide certainty and conclusiveness. Certainty, by giving the plaintiff time to investigate the cause and get legal support, file a claim, and try to resolve it before going to court. Conclusiveness in that it allows lawsuits to proceed within a reasonable timeline when relevant evidence is available, and witnesses still have recall of the event.
If the lawsuit is successful, the defendant will be ordered to pay damages, which are the plaintiff’s claimed losses. The damages can be awarded to compensate for reasonable funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses from the deceased’s final illness or injury, damages to property that occurred in the accident, lost earnings and inheritance, lost employment benefits, loss of care and companionship, and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are those meant to compensate the family member for the loss of the deceased, whereas punitive damages are intended to penalize the defendant and deter the behavior.
Punitive damages in Nevada are generally limited to, or capped at:
- Three times the compensatory damages amount that is awarded to the plaintiff if the amount of compensatory damages is $100,000 or more
- $300,000 if the amount of compensatory damages that are awarded to the plaintiff is $100,000 or less
However, under a few circumstances, there is no limit to the number of punitive damages that can be recovered, specifically if the case involves:
- Manufacturer, distributor, or seller of a product with defects
- Certain violations of laws against discriminatory practices in housing
- An insurer who acts in bad faith regarding obligations to provide insurance
- Damages or injuries that happen from emission, spillage, or disposal of hazardous material
- Auto accident caused by a driver who intentionally consumed drugs and/or alcohol
To be awarded punitive damages, it must be proved that the defendant acted with malice, fraud, conscious disregard, intentional oppression, or a willful disregard for others’ well-being. The proof will need to come from documents, communications, witnesses, etc.
Nevada law outlines how the settlement is divided among surviving family members. This law states that a deceased person’s heir is entitled to a portion of the settlement award. In most cases, the largest portion of a wrongful death settlement will go to a surviving spouse or domestic partner, then the next largest portion to surviving children. The settlement might be further divided among other loved ones if they can prove they suffered losses related to that death.
Who Is Paying Damages?
There are a variety of parties that could be held liable for wrongful death besides just the person who caused the injury. For instance, in a case involving an illness, it could be a drug or product manufacturer that has a faulty product that causes the fatality. For a car accident, it could be the car manufacturer for a car part that came loose, say a blown-out tire, that caused the accident. In a trucking accident, it could be the trucking company or the truck’s owner, in addition to the driver, who is liable for damages. Claimants must present evidence that demonstrates a certain person, company or other party is responsible for causing those losses.