In the middle of the night, the phone rings.
You receive the worst news of your life.
A loved one has suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.
Someone else’s negligence or reckless action caused the death. What do you do now?
There is a legal term for this, known as wrongful death. It is the basis of a serious lawsuit used to recover damages to family members affected by these tragic circumstances.
Of course, no amount of money can make up for the loss. But monetary compensation can help ease the financial burdens caused by the passing of a loved one.
Unfortunately, there is a statute of limitations on these cases. They vary by state but are usually only a few years after the death occurs. It can be difficult for the family but moving fast ensures the maximization of the case’s award.
The best way to begin this process is to hire a trusted attorney who can help you recover the most under state laws.
Keep reading to find out the steps you can take to ensure your case is well-prepared. In this way, you can help ensure justice is served and ease the financial burden on your family.
What Is a Wrongful Death Suit?
Generally speaking, these suits recover damages associated with another party’s negligence, death resulting. To file a claim for wrongful death, an individual must be able to prove their relationship. They also must prove any financial burdens resulting from the death.
Each state has more specific laws governing these suits. In South Carolina, only the estate administrator or the executor of the estate may legally file a wrongful death suit. Although, damages can still be awarded to other beneficiaries when appropriate.
These cases are often complicated, as there may be multiple parties involved. Those filing the claim may not even know who to sue, or where to begin.
The complicated legal system can be difficult for a layperson to navigate. This is especially true for the process of converting physical and emotional damages into monetary figures.
Follow these seven steps to make the process more approachable.
1. Determine Wrongful Death or Murder
The family of the deceased may elect to bring on a wrongful death suit. This means they are suing on the basis that the defendant caused the death of their loved one. This occurs due to deliberate, negligent, or careless action.
The deceased person may have been murdered, but this is not the purpose of the legal action. Wrongful death suits do not determine criminal intent. Those charges would be up to the district attorney’s office and handled in criminal courts.
Conversely, wrongful death suits play out in civil court. In this situation, courts may find defendants responsible for causing the death. If so, they are liable to compensate family members.
An example of this is the George Floyd case that has lit the media ablaze over the past months. In this case, the officers involved are facing criminal charges stemming from Floyd’s loss of life. However, the city is also separately facing a wrongful death suit from his family.
This is a more unique situation, as it has become a civil rights case as well. However, it illustrates the difference between a wrongful death suit and a criminal murder charge.
A similar situation occurred with Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa. Kobe and his daughter died in a helicopter crash earlier this year, which took the life of the pilot and several others as well. Vanessa Bryant is now suing the helicopter company, as she alleges their employee (the pilot) was negligent.
2. Determine Which Type of Wrongful Death Occurred
The incident that occurred leading to death determines which type of suit will follow.
Some examples of this include medical malpractice, which could be due to surgical errors, incorrect diagnoses, infections, etc. These do not always qualify for wrongful death suits. Negligence has to be proven.
Another example could be an incident resulting from unsafe conditions. This might mean a slip and fall resulting in death if property conditions were an underlying factor. This could include exposure to toxins.
Unsafe workplace conditions, as well as unsafe living conditions, could also apply. Again, negligence has to be proven in these cases.
A more common example occurs in a car accident. Of course, not all accidents are due to driver negligence. But if this can be proven in court, the operator of the vehicle at fault may face a wrongful death suit.
Venus Williams is a recent example of this in the news. Following a crash in which she was determined to be at fault, a death occurred. She is now facing a wrongful death suit from the victim’s family.
3. Check the Statute of Limitations
Each state carries a different statute of limitations, that puts a cap on how long a family can sue for wrongful death. In South Carolina, this is limit is three years from the moment of death.
4. Gather Required Evidence
There are multiple pieces of evidence to collect that can help ensure the process runs as hassle-free as possible. This includes:
- Death certificate
- Eyewitness testimony
- Evidence left behind at the scene
- Copies of medical and hospital records
- Security footage if attainable
- Copies of police reports
Not only can a lawyer help you pull this together, but can also ensure no detail is overlooked.
5. Decide Which Party to Sue
The period after a difficult death is already trying. When multiple parties are involved in the incident, it is even more confusing. Liable parties could be a private citizen, a business, a hospital, a pharmaceutical company, etc.
If multiple deaths occurred from the same party/situation, a class-action suit may be more appropriate.
Hiring an experienced attorney to navigate the situation is a necessity.
6. Narrow Down Which Benefits You Will Pursue
When awarded compensation in civil suits, there are economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages include:
- Funeral and burial costs
- Medical bills
- Loss of future wages/financial support
- Loss of benefits (like health insurance)
- Loss of inheritance
Non-economic damages include:
- Loss of companionship
- Loss of guidance
- Pain and suffering of family members
There are also punitive damages, where payment from the defendant serves as punishment for negligence. A trusted lawyer can help you determine which benefits fit your case.
7. Hire an Experienced Attorney to Help
The law can be confusing. Particularly with civil suits, the rules and proceedings can differ from a typical courtroom.
To navigate the legal system and make the most of your case, contact a lawyer with a stellar reputation in this area of law.
Especially during a time of grief, it’s important to ensure the defendant’s attorney does not take advantage of the situation. You have enough to worry about when a loved one passes, so hire an experienced lawyer to handle the rest.
Be sure they are well-respected in this area of law, especially with each state’s wrongful death laws varying.
Contact an experienced lawyer in South Carolina for a free wrongful death consultation today.
Thomas E. Pope is a Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Medical Malpractice Attorney who practices in Rock Hill, Lake Wylie, and Lancaster, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 31 years now. Thomas E. Pope believes in protecting the injured. Learn more about his experience here.