Accidents are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, they claim more than 161,000 lives. Only cancer, which causes almost 600,000 deaths, and heart disease, which causes 635,000 deaths, surpassing accidental deaths in number.
Of course, “accidents” covers a wide variety of types of death. Some are truly that--accidents in which no one is to blame. Others are accidents caused by the person who has passed away. Think car accidents caused by sliding on ice or falling off of a ladder.
But some are accidents that have been caused by a different individual’s negligence, or the negligence of a company. When a person or company causes death because of negligence, the loved ones of the deceased may file for wrongful death. But what constitutes a wrongful death, and what does a wrongful death lawyer do? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Definition of a Wrongful Death?
Before you can learn the role of a wrongful death lawyer and when you may need one, it’s important to learn what classifies as wrongful death.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, wrongful death is defined as:
"A death caused by the negligent, willful, or wrongful act, neglect, omission, or default of another"
The term wrongful death is usually used when a case is taken to court by a spouse, parents, or other family members following a loved one’s death.
The broad definition of wrongful death means that many different types of cases may fall under this category.
What are the Most Common Types of Cases of Wrongful Death?
When most people think of a wrongful death case, they think of medical malpractice or an accident in the workplace. However, these are far from the only accidents or incidents that can lead to a wrongful death lawsuit.
In fact, any accident or incident in which someone else’s negligence leads to a death can lead to a wrongful death case. The following are some of the most common categories of wrongful death cases.
Motor vehicle accidents are perhaps the most common cause of wrongful death cases. There are a number of reasons why a car accident death might lead to a wrongful death suit.
The most common is that careless or reckless driving leads to the accident. The driver may have been distracted, texting behind the wheel, or driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The car insurance of the responsible driver will pay for damages, including medical bills and the cost to repair or replace the vehicle of the victim. But if their reckless negligence leads to death, the family of the deceased may seek additional compensation.
Sometimes car accidents are linked to poorly designed roadways, construction zones that are not following strict protocols, or damaged infrastructure, like bridges. In this case, a wrongful death suit may be filed against the government body responsible for the roads, bridges, or construction zones where the accident took place.
Finally, car accidents may be caused by vehicle defects. In this case, the family of the deceased would file a suit against the automotive manufacturer.
Motor vehicle accidents involving semi-trucks are different than those involving passenger vehicles. When a commercial driver is involved, other factors may be to blame for the accident.
Long hours spent on the road without adequate breaks, as well as the monotony of driving on dark, empty highways can lead to accidents. Reckless driving by a commercial truck driver is another common cause. Additionally, faulty or inadequate repairs to trucks or improper loading of cargo can contribute to mishaps on the road.
When large profile trucks are involved, accidents are often far more deadly, especially when they involve collisions with smaller passenger vehicles.
Each year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, recalls up to 400 products in the U.S. From children’s toys to furniture, the CPSC looks for product defaults that could pose a safety hazard to consumers. Sometimes the default is contamination, such as finding lead in paint used on children’s toys. Other times it’s a manufacturing default that results in a product that could break and pose a hazard, like bookshelves that may easily tip forward when filled.
Despite these recalls, plenty of faulty products slip through the cracks each year. And just because a product is recalled doesn’t mean that some won’t make it on the market. In fact, recalls only have about a 65 percent effectiveness rate. This means that 35 percent of individual products still make it onto shelves or are not returned by customers and are used in the home.
The CPSC isn’t the only entity that deals with a product recall. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees any vehicle or automotive part recalls.
Despite the efforts of organizations and government agencies, faulty products still cause an unknown number of deaths each year. When an individual dies as a result of using a faulty product, his or her family may choose to file a wrongful death suit against the manufacturer of the product.
Any time that you step foot on another individual’s property or a commercial property, the owners of the said property have a legal duty to protect you from unsafe conditions. This doesn’t mean that they have to protect you from acts of mother nature while you are on their property, or from other circumstances that are out of their control. Instead, this duty extends to any potential hazards that the owner could fix or could properly warn visitors about.
A few examples of accidents that could lead to a premises liability wrongful death suit include:
- A young child drowning after falling into a pool that wasn’t properly contained by a fence or other barrier.
- Attacks by any pets or livestock on the property
- Slipping and falling on a wet tile in a shopping mall where no wet floor signs or other warnings were present.
- Injuries caused by unsafe construction zones
- Whiplash or other injuries caused by a malfunctioning escalator in a school
- Exposure to any toxic substances, like lead paint in an older building
- Children injured in accidents at daycare facilities.
Medical malpractice is a very real threat to patients. In one ten-year period, from 2006 and 2016, more than 143,700 payments were made to victims of medical malpractice. Medical malpractice can come in several forms. Any time that a surgeon or other doctor has a lapse in judgment or skill, makes a wrong diagnosis, messes up a procedure, or uses products incorrectly, it can have devastating consequences for the patient.
While it does not always lead to death, medical malpractice does claim lives. Some experts believe that tens of thousands of patients die as a result of medical malpractice each year.
In many cases, the fact that any malpractice has occurred may go unnoticed. This is often true of older patients or those who are very ill. If the death is not sudden and unexpected, the surviving family may have no reason to question the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
However, if there is any question about the circumstances or if malpractice is clear, the family can file a wrongful death suit. The suit will usually be against the hospital or other facility. The responsible doctor will also be listed.
In the case of malpractice, these cases are about more than getting compensation. A medical malpractice case filed against a doctor can also help ensure that his or her future patients do not meet the same fate. Depending on the severity of the case and the extent of the mistake made, the doctor could lose their license to practice medicine.
What Does a Wrongful Death Lawyer Do?
When a surviving spouse or other family member decides to file a wrongful death suit, they will first need to find an attorney. You could technically file this claim on your own. However, the skills and expertise of a wrongful death lawyer can be instrumental in guiding you through the legal process, building a case, and ultimately winning a settlement.
Figuring Out Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
One of the first things that a wrongful death lawyer can help clients with is figuring out whether their state allows them to file such a suit.
Many states have laws about who can file a wrongful death suit when an individual dies. In most cases, the person filing the lawsuit will need to be a relative. Some states require that familial relationships be very close. In Florida, for example, only the personal representative of an estate can file a suit. Other states allow more distant relatives to file wrongful death claims.
In Utah, individuals that can file a wrongful death suit include:
- The surviving spouse
- Any surviving children, including legally adopted children
- Stepchildren that are under the age of 18 at the time of the death of their parent, and who are financially dependent on the deceased
- Either surviving parent, or adoptive parents
- Blood relatives that are included within Utah’s inheritance laws
Building a Wrongful Death Case
Once your lawyer has helped you to determine whether you can legally file a suit, he or she will begin helping you build your case. Your wrongful death attorney will do this in a number of ways.
Medical records for the deceased and any police reports related to his or her death will be gathered. Your lawyer will also thoroughly research the circumstances surrounding their death.
For medical malpractice cases, they may research the surgery or the instruments involved. In the case of product defaults, your attorney will research the product, any recalls, where it was bought, and what went wrong. They may also obtain another of the product, preferably with the default present.
Depending on the circumstances of the accident that led to the death of the victim, there may be witnesses. If so, your lawyer will take statements and perhaps even ask them to appear in court on the behalf of the deceased. They may recreate the scene of an accident through photos or even 3D models to better demonstrate what happened.
All of this evidence will be compiled and prepared for presentation in court. The goal is to establish proof, showing the court that an individual, doctor, or company’s negligence lead to the individual’s death.
Taking a Case to Court
Establishing proof is more complicated than it may seem. It may seem obvious to you that someone’s negligence led to the death of your loved one. However, it is rarely as clear as it seems.
Trying to build a case and establish proof on your own is a big mistake. A wrongful death lawyer has the skills and experience that it takes to win your case and the justice and compensation that you deserve.
He or she will understand state laws surrounding wrongful death suits. They will be able to find research that you might otherwise not find, like information about coverups of faulty products or previous recalls of bad medical supplies. They will also know how to present the evidence in court to a judge and jury to prove why your loved one’s death could have been prevented.
Why You Should File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Dealing with the death of a spouse, parent, or other family member is difficult enough. Knowing that their death was avoidable and that it was the consequence of someone else’s negligence, is even harder.
Hearing the details of his or her death repeated and seeing the evidence presented in court can make the pain of their loss even worse. However, filing a case for wrongful death is a must. It will help you get financial compensation to pay for funeral costs or to replace the income that you once depended on. But you will also help get justice for your loved one. Depending on the circumstances of their death, you may also help to prevent similar deaths in the future.