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How Much Does a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Cost?

Nearly 170,000 people die in the U.S. each year as a result of unintentional injuries. It’s impossible to determine exactly how many of these deaths occurred as a result of negligence on the part of another individual or a company. One big reason for the lack of reporting of wrongful death cases is because of how many cases likely go unrecorded.

When an elderly or ailing patient passes away after surgery, the surviving family may not question the circumstances, leaving medical malpractice to go unnoticed. A car accident could be treated as though both drivers were at fault when in reality one carried more fault than the other. Product defects, especially those involving poisoning that occurs years after exposure, can be difficult to detect, and even harder to prove.

Another barrier that may prevent some wrongful death cases from going to court is that clients may falsely believe that it is too expensive to get the legal representation they need. How much does a wrongful death lawsuit cost the client? And by comparison, how much is the potential settlement worth? Keep reading to find out.

How Much Does a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Cost the Client?

The cost to file a wrongful death suit will vary from one case to the next. Just as the circumstances of each case are unique, so too are the factors that determine what it will cost for a defendant to take their case to court.

Without a set cost to hire an attorney, it can be difficult to estimate what hiring a wrongful death attorney might cost you in the end. But understanding how the cost is calculated, and what exactly you’ll have to pay for, can help you make an informed decision about investing in an attorney to help you fight for a settlement.

The first thing that you should know is not to expect to pay your attorney by the hour or a set fee for their services. Instead, most wrongful death lawyers charge a contingency fee.

What is a Contingency Fee?

Divorce lawyers, criminal defense attorneys, and lawyers in similar practice areas usually charge an hourly fee for their services. But when it comes to personal injury cases, hourly fees are rare. Instead, your wrongful death attorney is likely to charge a contingency fee.

A contingency fee is a pre-determined percentage of a settlement paid to an attorney for their services. The lawyer and the client determine this percentage before starting the case. Then, the client will hand over that percentage of their settlement if they win their case. Because settlements vary in what they are worth, the total that a contingency fee is worth will vary as well. 

But what happens if the client does not win a settlement, and walks away from court empty-handed? That’s where the other part of the contingency fee comes in. That fee is contingent upon the client winning his or her case. This means that if you lose and do not receive a settlement, you also don’t have to pay the fee.

What are the Benefits of a Contingency Fee?

Contingency fees are beneficial to both clients and attorneys. For clients, they offer an accessible way to be able to afford a lawyer, which may otherwise not be possible. They also help ensure that your attorney is working hard to fight your case. Without a contingency fee, you might be left worrying whether your case is really a priority to your lawyer, or whether they will devote the time needed to help you build a strong case.

For attorneys, contingency fees offer a guaranteed payout in exchange for their hard work on the case. The higher the settlement they can help their client get, the higher their contingency fee is.

In the same way, if an attorney determines that a case will not net a high settlement, or if the case is unlikely to be won, they may be hesitant to take on your case on a contingency fee. However, this means that if they do agree to handle your case, you can rest assured that they think it has value and a fair shot at being won in court.

What Percentage of a Settlement Does a Contingency Fee Claim?

A contingency fee is not a set percentage. Instead, the percentage varies from one case to the next and varies from one attorney to the next. The average contingency fee is about one-third of a total settlement or 33 percent. However, that number can go as high as 40 percent. 

More complicated cases will require more of an attorney’s time to take to court, and therefore may carry a higher fee. But these more complicated cases often carry a higher settlement as well, which means that the client will still receive a large sum even after the contingency fee is subtracted.

Some clients wonder whether it is possible to negotiate the contingency fee. While it is not set ahead of time and is therefore somewhat flexible, your attorney does not randomly choose the percentage to charge you. Instead, that number is carefully chosen, based on the risk that they access in your case and the amount of time and effort they expect to have to commit to helping you win. Therefore, they are unlikely to lower their fee.

Another thing to keep in mind about contingency fees is that they are not a reward for winning a case. Instead, this total pays for a variety of expenses that a lawyer incurs while fighting your case. This includes:

  • Rent for the law firms office space
  • Office supplies like printers, computers, paper, etc.
  • Salaries of other staff, including paralegals or clerks who assist in the case
  • Your attorneys own salary

What Other Litigation Fees Will a Client Be Responsible for?

A contingency fee represents what you will pay an attorney for taking on your case. In exchange for this fee, they will help you build a case, navigate the legal process, and take your case to court if it comes to that. But a contingency fee does not cover all of the expenses that clients will owe.

While the contingency fee is the highest total that you’ll pay in the course of your case, you are also responsible for litigation fees. This includes any costs associated with building and filing your case. Some examples of litigation fees include:

  • Court filing fees. For example, filing a case in federal court costs about $400.
  • Bringing in expert witnesses to review your case, prepare a report, and testify at your trial. This could include medical experts, experts on specific product defaults, etc.
  • Costs associated with researching your case. Some attorneys may opt to hire a private investigator, depending on the circumstances of your case and its complexities.
  • Obtaining copies of public documents, medical records, and other evidence.
  • Enlarging and printing photos for use in court as evidence.
  • Other incidentals incurred in the course of your cases, such as postage or copying documents.

When you will pay these litigation costs will depend on the attorney. Some will require that clients pay these fees as they come about during the course of the case. Others will allow the client to pay them after the case is settled, that way they can use proceeds from their settlement to pay.

How Much is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Settlement Worth?

Understanding what filing a wrongful death lawsuit will cost you is important in helping you make your decision. However, it can be tough to estimate what it will really cost until you know what your own case settlement might be worth.

What is the Average Settlement of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Settlements for wrongful death lawsuits can vary widely from one case to the next. High-profile wrongful death suits often carry settlements in the millions of dollars. Some examples of recent high profile wrongful death suits and their settlements include:

  • A 2013 settlement of $150 million in damages awarded to 13-year-old Kylie Asam of Los Angeles. Kylie witnesses her family die in a fiery car crash after their vehicle struck a truck that was on the side of the road in the early morning hours with no lights on. Her brother also survived but committed suicide before the case was over. Part of the settlement was awarded to him but is held in trust for Kylie until her 18th birthday.
  • The $12 million settlement recently awarded to the family of Breonna Taylor. Breonna was shot by police in her home while they were executing a no-knock warrant.
  • A Massachusetts family was awarded $32 million in a wrongful death settlement after a woman was killed when a motorist ran their vehicle into the farm store where she worked.

These high settlements are not the norm. Most wrongful death cases feature settlements worth thousands of dollars, or in the low tens of thousands.

What Factors Affect What a Wrongful Death Lawsuit is Worth?

Wrongful death lawsuits are calculated based on the costs associated with an individual’s death, as well as the pain and suffering of their surviving family.

Some factors that might be included when determining what a case is worth include:

  • If the victim was not killed instantly, the cost of the ambulance or air ambulance ride will be included in the settlement. The average air ambulance ride costs between $12,000 and $15,0000 to travel about 52 miles.
  • Any medical bills for the victim’s care prior to their death
  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Cost to repair or replace the victim’s vehicle if it was involved in the accident
  • The cost to repair or replace other property damaged or destroyed in the accident that killed the victim
  • Lost income of the victim. This is income that the surviving spouse and dependents are suddenly left without
  • The pain and suffering of the victim before they were killed. 
  • Pain and suffering of the surviving loved ones of the victim. This includes putting a financial price on the loss of love and companionship.
  • If the victim had children, the lost value of their moral support and guidance

How is a Wrongful Death Settlement Calculated?

Calculating what a wrongful death settlement is worth is complicated. That’s where the help of a wrongful death attorney comes in.

Your lawyer will help compile medical bills, ambulance costs, funeral expenses, and other straightforward expenses sustained as a result of the victim’s death. Then, starting with that total, he or she will help you calculate what the other factors are worth, such as pain and suffering and the loss of income for what would have been the remainder of the victim’s life. They may also research the settlements of similar cases in your area when determining what your case is worth.

Is it Worth the Investment to Hire a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Now that you know what it could cost to file your wrongful death case, and how the value of your settlement is determined, it’s time to decide whether or not it is worth the investment to hire an attorney.

The reality is that the cost of not hiring an attorney will always outweigh the potential gains. Wrongful death lawsuits are complicated. On your own, you would need to learn how to navigate court filings, build your own case, compile evidence, and more. There are many laws that determine what counts as a wrongful death suit, who can file one, and maximums for settlements.

An experienced wrongful death attorney will not only be able to help with each of these steps but can also represent you in court or help you settle out of court for the maximum possible settlement. Dealing with the death of a loved one is difficult enough. Fighting for justice for them and for compensation that will help keep their death from ruining your family’s financial future can be even harder. Investing in an attorney means having help with the many difficulties of filing a suit, and having an expert on your side that’s fighting with you.

Sources:

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/accidental-injury.htm

https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/what-is-a-contingency-fee.html

https://injury.findlaw.com/torts-and-personal-injuries/wrongful-death-lawsuit-settlements-averages-and-outliers.html

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/la-jury-awards-150-million-to-13-year-old-girl-whose-family-died-in-freeway-crash/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/us/breonna-taylor-settlement-louisville.html?auth=login-email&login=email

https://www.masslive.com/news/2016/02/jury_awards_323_million_to_chi.html

https://content.naic.org/article/consumer_insight_understanding_air_ambulance_insurance_coverage.htm

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