Personal injury litigation is widely known for helping injured parties stand up to big corporations and insurance companies following a catastrophic event that limits the party’s ability to enjoy life, continue to work or participate in activities of daily living. Within our practice area, we also litigate wrongful death cases – cases where the negligent actions of a company or person directly caused someone’s death.
Wrongful death actions, much like personal injury actions, follow the same steps of pre-litigation investigation, discovery, settlement negotiations, and trial, but there are some unique measures that must be taken specifically for wrongful death claims. In this blog, we will analyze what qualifies as a wrongful death claim, how these claims are proven, who can sue for wrongful death, and what compensation can be received following a wrongful death claim.
What qualifies as a wrongful death lawsuit?
Wrongful death lawsuits are characterized by a negligent act resulting in the death of an individual. In simple injury cases, our job is to show that one negligent act, committed by the Defendant, directly caused or directly contributed to causing the injury that the Plaintiff suffered.
This comes in two parts – first, we must prove the Defendant’s action was negligent based on the standard of care or duty to care for the Plaintiff. Then, we must prove that Defendant’s action directly caused or directly contributed to causing the Plaintiff’s injury. For wrongful death actions, we must not only prove there was a negligent act, but we must prove this act directly caused the decedent’s death.
As practitioners in Missouri, we look to the Missouri Approved Instructions, commonly known as jury instructions. These instructions provide insight into what must be proven before a jury in order to get a verdict in the Plaintiff’s favor. MAI 20.01 gives the template for wrongful death actions with a single negligent act. MAI 20.01 reads:
Your verdict must be for plaintiff if you believe:
First plaintiff was (here insert statutory qualification required to bring the action), and
Second, defendant violated the traffic signal, and
Third, defendant was thereby negligent, and
Fourth, as a direct result of such negligence, (insert name of decedent) died.
This instruction, also known as a verdict director, is submitted to the jury at the end of the trial and asks the jury who they find in favor. This instruction lays out exactly what must be proven in a wrongful death action:
- The Plaintiff is able to bring the action because a duty of care was owed.
- The Defendant committed a single act.
- That act was negligent.
- That negligent act directly caused the decedent’s death.
In short, a death directly caused by a negligent act can result in a wrongful death claim, but it takes experienced attorneys to review the specific facts to determine if a successful case is possible.
Who can sue for wrongful death?
Following a death caused by a negligent act, the decedent’s immediate family members have the ability to sue on the decedent’s behalf. In Missouri, RSMO Section 537.080 gives three categories of people who can sue for wrongful death:
First, by the spouse or children or the surviving lineal descendants of any deceased children, natural or adopted, legitimate or illegitimate, or by the father or mother of the deceased, natural or adoptive.
Second, if there are no persons in category one, the brother or sister of the deceased, or their descendants, who can establish his or her right to the damages because of the death.
Third, if there are no persons in categories one or two, a plaintiff ad litem may be appointed. A plaintiff ad litem is a court-appointed person authorized to sue at the request of heirs of the deceased – usually the personal representative of the deceased’s estate.
Consulting with an estate attorney to determine the proper representative is necessary in wrongful death actions and this can be streamlined while working with the attorney handling the wrongful death case.
What can a wrongful death claim cover?
In Missouri, wrongful death claims can cover various damages including loss of income, funeral expenses, medical expenses, and loss of consortium. In plain words, the loss of the decedent includes the loss of their income that supported their family, the loss of their services to their spouse and family, and the leave behind funeral and medical expenses that must be paid.
Had the negligent act resulting in their death not been committed, these expenses and losses would not have occurred. The ability to recover these losses pushes families to retain wrongful death attorneys as the sudden loss of a family member can cause strain on finances and a family’s ability to live.
These types of damages are broken into economic and non-economic damages – economic damages are funeral and medical expenses and loss of income, with loss of consortium and enjoyment of life being non-economic. Depending on the type of case being brought, whether it is wrongful death arising out of medical malpractice or wrongful death arising out of a car accident, there may be caps for non-economic damages, meaning a jury’s award for non-economic damages may be lowered to a standard amount set by the legislature.
How Do I File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Filing a wrongful death lawsuit may be one of the hardest decisions for a family to make. Experienced, caring lawyers like the wrongful death attorneys at The Simon Law Firm, P.C. are necessary in order to efficiently investigate a potential claim and take on the litigation process. Sudden, catastrophic deaths push families to their breaking points not only because of the loss but because of the after-effects such as financial hardship.
The wrongful death attorneys at The Simon Law Firm have decades of experience to guide and counsel families through the investigative period and litigation. A caring, devoted team stands by your side throughout the process and passionately advises on any issue that arises. Wrongful death litigation is emotionally taxing but having the right attorney by your side will make the process easier.
Find Expert Legal Counsel with The Simon Law Firm
If you believe a loved one’s death was caused by a negligent act, please contact The Simon Law Firm, P.C. today for a free, confidential consultation. We proudly stand up to corporations, insurance companies, and individuals who must be held accountable for their negligent actions.