Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit?

January 15, 2024
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit?

The loss of a loved one is an unimaginable tragedy, particularly when it stems from someone else's negligence or a wrongful act. In these moments of sorrow, a wrongful death lawyer can offer a pathway to justice and financial compensation. However, not everyone is eligible to file such a claim.

Understanding Wrongful Death Suits

A wrongful death suit is a specific type of legal action that arises when the negligent, careless, or intentional acts of another person or entity cause an individual's death. The primary purpose of such a lawsuit is to provide financial support for the dependents or beneficiaries of the deceased and, secondly, to bring a sense of justice in the wake of a tragic loss. The rationale behind wrongful death suits is rooted in compensating those who have suffered the most from the loss. It acknowledges that, while no amount of money can replace a loved one, financial compensation can help alleviate the burdens of such a loss, like funeral expenses, lost income, and the emotional toll.

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation

Common Scenarios Leading to Wrongful Death Claims

Wrongful death claims can arise from various scenarios, each with unique legal considerations. Some of the common situations include:
  • Medical Malpractice: When a death occurs due to medical errors, misdiagnosis, surgical mistakes, or neglect in care, it can lead to a wrongful death claim. A lawyer practicing medical malpractice can help uncover medical errors and hold healthcare professionals or institutions accountable.
  • Car Accidents: Fatalities resulting from car accidents, frequently caused by negligence on the part of another driver, drunk driving, or a failure to abide by traffic laws, can be the basis for a wrongful death suit. A lawyer can assist in investigating the accident, gathering evidence, and dealing with insurance companies.
  • Workplace Incidents: In cases where an individual dies due to unsafe working conditions, lack of safety protocols, or industrial accidents, employers or responsible parties can file a wrongful death claim.
  • Criminal Acts: If a person's death is the result of criminal actions like homicide or manslaughter, a wrongful death suit can be a way for the family to seek civil justice, regardless of the outcome of any criminal trial.

Eligibility to File a Wrongful Death Suit

State law governs the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit, which means eligibility criteria can vary significantly from one state to another. Some states have specific statutes outlining who can bring these claims, while others rely on case law. A wrongful death lawyer can interpret the relevant state laws and advise on the specific regulations for your case. This includes understanding any unique stipulations or limitations imposed by your state and ensuring that your claim aligns with local legal requirements.

Family Members

In most jurisdictions, immediate family members are the primary people eligible to file a wrongful death suit. This typically includes:
  • Spouses: A surviving spouse often has the first right to bring a wrongful death claim, seeking compensation for loss of consortium, emotional distress, and financial support.
  • Children: Minor children (and sometimes adult children) can file a suit for the loss of parental guidance, support, and affection.
  • Parents: In cases where the deceased is a minor or an unmarried child without children, the parents may be eligible to file a claim.
A lawyer can help these family members understand their rights and the extent of their claims. They assist in determining the appropriate compensation and represent their interests throughout the legal process.

Extended Family and Dependents

Some states extend the eligibility to file wrongful death claims beyond immediate family members. This can include extended family members like siblings, grandparents, or even non-relatives who were financially dependent on the deceased. The eligibility often depends on the relationship's specifics and the death's financial impact on the claimant. A lawyer can review individual circumstances to determine if extended family members or dependents have a legitimate claim under state law.

The Role of the Estate in Wrongful Death Claims

In numerous wrongful death cases, the deceased individual's estate holds substantial importance. It serves as a pivotal factor in legal proceedings, often influencing the course of the case and its outcomes. The first step in this process often involves the appointment of a personal representative, also known as an executor or administrator. This person is responsible for overseeing the estate's involvement in the lawsuit and ensuring proper management of any awarded damages per the deceased's wishes and state laws. A lawyer can guide the selection of an appropriate representative, often a close family member or a trusted individual, and assist in the legal process required to formalize this appointment. Once appointed, the lawyer works closely with the personal representative to navigate the wrongful death claim. This includes advising on legal strategy, communicating with involved parties, and ensuring compliance with all procedural requirements.

Compensation Distribution

One of the most important roles of the estate in a wrongful death claim is the distribution of compensation. The compensation awarded as a result of the claim typically goes to the estate and must then be distributed to the heirs or beneficiaries. This distribution process can be complicated, with several factors to consider, including the stipulations of the will (if one exists), state intestacy laws (which apply when there is no will), and the unique dynamics of the family. A lawyer can be helpful in this process, helping to ensure that the compensation distribution is fair and aligns with legal requirements. They can also address any disputes that arise among heirs or beneficiaries, offering solutions and legal advice to resolve potential conflicts.

Estate vs. Individual Claims

Understanding the distinction between claims made by the estate and those made by individuals is another aspect of wrongful death lawsuits. While individual family members might pursue compensation for their losses, such as loss of companionship or support, the estate's claim typically focuses on losses directly related to the death, like medical and funeral expenses, and any pain and suffering experienced by the deceased before death. A lawyer can delineate these claims and ensure they are properly filed and argued. They help determine the most appropriate avenue for each type of claim and ensure that all potential avenues for compensation are explored and used. A lawyer can effectively present the estate's and the individuals' claims, maximizing the potential for a fair and comprehensive settlement or judgment.

Types of Damages in Wrongful Death Suits

In wrongful death suits, economic damages are tangible, financial losses that the deceased's dependents or estate have incurred due to the death. Economic damages typically include:
  • Lost Income and Earnings: This includes the income the deceased will have earned had they lived. Calculating this amount involves examining the deceased's earning history, career trajectory, and potential future earnings.
  • Medical Expenses: Economic damages encompass any medical costs accrued due to the injury or illness resulting in the individual's death.
  • Funeral and Burial Costs: The expenses associated with funeral services and burial or cremation can be significant and are recoverable as economic damages.
  • Loss of Benefits: This may include the loss of pension, retirement benefits, or medical insurance coverage that the deceased will have provided.

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages are more subjective and compensate for the intangible losses suffered by the deceased's loved ones. They include:
  • Pain and Suffering of the Deceased: If the deceased endured pain and suffering before their death, one might seek compensation to address this distress.
  • Loss of Companionship and Love: Family members can receive compensation for the loss of the relationship, including the emotional support and companionship the deceased provided.
  • Loss of Consortium: This is specific to the spouse of the deceased and relates to the loss of marital benefits, including affection, sexual relations, and partnership.
  • Mental Anguish: This compensates the family members for the psychological impact of their loved one's death.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are not awarded in every wrongful death case but are applicable in situations where the defendant's actions were especially reckless, malicious, or egregious. The purpose of these damages is not to compensate the victim's family but to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in the future. Successfully arguing for punitive damages requires a sophisticated understanding of the law. A lawyer can assess the defendant's actions and determine if seeking punitive damages is appropriate. They also have the skills to present compelling arguments to justify these damages.

The Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims

The statute of limitations determines the deadline for filing a wrongful death claim. This time frame varies significantly from state to state. Typically, the statute ranges from one to three years from the date of the deceased's passing. It is important to be aware of these deadlines, as failing to file within this period can result in losing the right to sue.


In certain circumstances, exceptions to the standard statute of limitations may apply. For instance, the time limit might extend if the defendant left the state for a period or if the plaintiff is a minor. Furthermore, cases involving criminal acts may cause a pause in the statute until the case gets resolved. A lawyer can guide these exceptions, helping to determine whether any special circumstances might extend or shorten the filing deadline in your case. Factors like discovering new evidence or specific legal conditions can affect this timeline, and a lawyer can provide clarity in such situations.

Challenges and Considerations in Wrongful Death Cases

Establishing negligence or fault in a wrongful death case requires a deep understanding of legal principles and evidentiary requirements. A lawyer can navigate these complexities, proving that the defendant's actions (or inactions) directly led to the wrongful death.

Wrongful Death Cases Are Often Highly Complex

Some wrongful death claims, particularly those involving high-profile incidents or complicated legal issues, demand sophisticated legal navigation. Lawyers have the skills and resources to handle these complex cases, addressing any unique legal challenges and ensuring a fair process.

Insurance and Defendants

Dealing with insurance companies and defendants is often challenging. They may attempt to minimize liability or dispute the claim's validity. A lawyer acts as a strong advocate, negotiating with these parties and fighting for your rights, ensuring you receive fair compensation. Lawyers bring their legal knowledge and advocacy skills to wrongful death cases. They can assist in proving liability, negotiating settlements, or presenting arguments in court.

Settlements and Trials

Whether negotiating a settlement or representing you in a trial, a lawyer can provide representation and advice to achieve the best possible outcome.

Support and Guidance

Beyond the legal side of things, lawyers offer emotional support and guidance through this difficult process. They understand the emotional toll these cases can take and provide compassionate assistance every step of the way.

FAQs in Wrongful Death Suits

Below, we've covered some FAQs that arise about wrongful death suits.

Do Siblings Have Eligibility to File a Claim?

Whether siblings are eligible to file a wrongful death claim depends on state laws. The best way to have this question answered is to speak with a lawyer. A lawyer can provide specific advice based on your jurisdiction and the unique circumstances of your case.

What Happens if There Is No Immediate Family?

In cases where the deceased had no immediate family, a lawyer can help determine who else might be eligible to file a claim. They can advise on state laws regarding next of kin or other parties with a legitimate claim.

Contact a Wrongful Death Lawyer

Chris Castillo, Attorney for Wrongful Death Accident
Chris Castillo, Wrongful Death Attorney
Understanding your rights in a wrongful death suit is the first step on the path to justice and closure. A personal injury lawyer can protect the rights of the deceased's loved ones and amplify their voices. If you are facing the challenging task of pursuing a wrongful death suit, remember that you do not have to go down this path alone. A lawyer can provide legal support, guidance, and representation to seek justice for your loved one. Contact a wrongful death lawyer for a consultation to explore your options and take the first step toward healing and resolution.

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation Today!