Most people understand that compensation is available for those injured in accidents caused by someone else's negligence. However, many are unaware that when an individual dies due to injuries sustained due to negligence, their family members can also seek compensation.
The wrongful death claims process is similar to the personal injury claims process. Both methods include the attorney who assists clients with these claims, as most personal injury lawyers are also wrongful death lawyers.
What Is Wrongful Death?
Every state has slight differences in how they define the term. A wrongful death generally refers to a death that is the result of someone's careless, reckless, or even intentional acts. When someone dies in an accident caused by another's negligence, each state allows for a wrongful death action against the at-fault party.
Victims can obtain compensation for the economic and psychological impacts of the deceased's loved ones due to the death. This action generally begins by demanding compensation from the provider of the at-fault party's associated liability insurance policy.
If the insurance provider fails to pay the claim outright or through a negotiated settlement, the claimant can file the claim as a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court for a judge or jury to hear the case and make decisions as to who was liable for causing the death and how much compensation is owed to the deceased's family members.
The Type of Accidents that Can Result in a Wrongful Death Claim?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 200,000 people die each year from unintentional injuries, which refer to injuries that result from an accident caused by either the negligence of the injured party or another party.
Two of the most common types of accidents that result in death include falls, which account for more than 42,000 deaths a year in the U.S., and motor vehicle accidents, which result in more than 40,000 deaths in a year.
Other common causes of wrongful death include:
- Medical malpractice occurs when a health care provider makes an error that causes injury to or death of a patient. Common types of medical malpractice include diagnosis errors, prescription errors, mistakes made during surgery or the administration of anesthesia, failure to provide adequate follow-up care, birth injuries, and premature discharge from the hospital.
- Premises liability matters, including deaths resulting from swimming pool accidents, defective escalators or elevators, fires or floods, failure to provide adequate security to protect guests from being harmed by a criminal activity known to occur in the area, and deaths resulting from dog bites
- Defective foods, drugs, and other products resulted in wrongful death due to the manufacturer's failure to ensure that the product was reasonably safe for consumers when used according to the instructions provided on the label or packaging of the product
- Nursing home abuse or neglect, including those caused by failure to provide adequate supervision for an elderly resident, failure to adhere to dietary restrictions placed on the resident by their doctor, and failure to provide adequate medical care, food, or hydration
- Motor vehicle accidents involve vulnerable roadway users such as bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians
The loved ones of a person intentionally killed can also seek compensation, even if the at-fault party has been arrested for the crime and is currently incarcerated.
A wrongful death claim is completely different than the criminal process involved in charging and convicting the individual of a crime. Wrongful death claims are civil actions that compensate the victims of the crime, not for proving guilt and determining criminal penalties such as incarceration and fines.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Those who benefit from a wrongful death claim include the deceased's spouse, children, or parents. In some states, including Illinois, the action of filing the claim must be taken by a named or appointed personal estate representative.
A personal representative, also known as an executor or administrator of the estate, is an individual with the legal authority to make financial and legal decisions on behalf of the deceased. Often, this individual is named in the deceased's will as their executor. However, in cases where the deceased party dies without a will, the court can appoint a personal representative to handle the deceased's final matters.
The Point of the Claim: Dealing With Impacts and Expenses Incurred in a Time of Loss
Losing a loved one in an accident is one of the most traumatic situations a family can endure, even more so if the death resulted from someone else's carelessness or recklessness. Here is a look at some of the impacts families often endure after a wrongful death.
Many individuals who die due to injuries sustained in an accident caused by someone else's negligence live for a matter of time sometimes even for years after the injury occurred. During this time, they have likely incurred major expenses due to the medical effort to save their life. These costs are not cheap, with the average hospitalization carrying a price tag of more than $2,600 a day and even more if the patient receives treatment in the ICU. Many types of surgical procedures carry costs of over $100,000.
In addition to the costs of treating the deceased's final injuries, family members are also commonly left trying to figure out how to afford the cost of a funeral service and burial or cremation. The average funeral service in the U.S. costs more than $7,800. These costs include a casket, basic services, embalming, the use of facilities for the viewing and ceremony, transportation of the remains from the funeral home to the cemetery, a printed memorial, and a car or van provided to transport survivors from the funeral home to the cemetery.
Purchasing a burial plot will tack another $2,000 onto that total. Additional expenses can be expected for optional services such as a funeral meal, an obituary, a floral arrangement for the service, and obtaining a copy of the death certificate. All told, a funeral and burial generally cost more than $11,000.
Cremation is often touted as a cheaper alternative to burial, as there is no need to buy a plot or casket. However, as more individuals seek cremation as an alternative to the expenses associated with burial, the costs continue to increase. A cremation package from a funeral home will generally cost between $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the funeral home.
Loss of Financial Support
The family members of an individual who incurred a wrongful death are often left to handle their loved one's final expenses and burial or cremation. They are also often left without financial support if the deceased was the primary income earner for the household. This can leave spouses and even teens scrambling to find employment to make ends meet, as well as the emotional distress of being unable to pay for the household's monthly living expenses or afford college for dependent children.
Loss of Consortium
There are several benefits that members of a happy marriage enjoy, including the comfort and companionship of their spouse and sexual relations. Loss of consortium is a type of non-economic loss suffered by the surviving spouse who has lost their life partner.
Loss of Guidance and Instruction
Just as spouses are deprived of the psychological benefits they enjoy when their partner dies due to someone else's negligence, the children of the deceased also suffer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, parents spend an average of around 2.24 hours daily caring for and providing assistance to minor children.
While many experts state this isn't enough time, it is more than 817 hours a year. By the time the child is 18, the average parent will have spent more than 14,700 hours providing care and emotional support to the child, roughly the equivalent of working a full-time job for more than 367 weeks (over seven years).
During this time, most parents aren't simply ensuring that the child is fed and going to bed on time. They also provide emotional support, guidance, and instruction to help their child become a productive adult.
The Grief of Family Members
It is common for individuals to experience grief and sorrow after a loss. The period of grief is often filled with feelings of almost unbearable sorrow, numbness, or even anger that makes it difficult for survivors to accept the loss and move forward.
For some individuals, grief can become debilitating, resulting in a condition known as complicated grief or persistent complex bereavement disorder. This condition can result in prolonged difficulty in carrying out regular daily routines, isolation from other people and social activities, depression, and the feeling of being unable to live without the lost family member.
Risk factors for experiencing complicated grief include having one's loved one experience an unexpected or violent death; losing a child; losing someone with whom the sufferer has shared a close or dependent relationship; and other life stressors, including the financial hardship, experienced as a result of the death.
Do You Need an Attorney to File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Family members of a person who suffered a wrongful death can obtain compensation for the impacts listed above through the wrongful death claims process. Many family members hesitate to ask the deceased's representative to speak with an attorney about filing a claim because they fear they cannot afford the attorney's services.
This fear is understandable, particularly in light of the expenses incurred due to the death. The billing method that wrongful death attorneys use ensures that anyone who needs assistance with the claims process has access to qualified legal help, regardless of their financial status.
The contingent fee billing method allows the estate representative to obtain an attorney's assistance throughout the wrongful death claims process without having to pay for the attorney's services until there is a positive resolution to the claim, either through a negotiated settlement or a court award.
It works like this:
- When the attorney and the claimant agree to begin working on the claim, they enter into a contingent fee agreement. This agreement outlines the attorney's services and designates a percentage of the compensation received as payment.
- The attorney provides the services for the claimant without subjecting them to hourly billing cycles. Work can continue on the case without worrying about whether the claimant is current on their payment.
- At the resolution of the claim, the proceeds of the settlement or award will be sent directly to the attorney. They will deposit the money in a trust. They will deduct the percentage for their payment as agreed to at the start of the process from the trust. They will also use the funds to satisfy any medical liens placed on the award by health care providers or group health insurers who covered the deceased's final treatment.
- Once the attorney's payment has been made and medical liens have been satisfied, the attorney and the client will meet to finalize the case, and the remaining compensation will be released to the claimant.
In some states, the wrongful death law requires each beneficiary to receive a specific portion of the proceeds of the wrongful death claim by their relationship with the deceased, with the largest portion going to the deceased's spouse and dependent children. However, other states allow the family member to distribute the funds as they see fit.