What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
If you’ve recently lost a loved one because of another person’s or institution’s negligence, understanding what is a wrongful death lawsuit and what isn’t can help you make sense of what to do next. While you should certainly research wrongful death to become more informed, meeting with a skilled Houston wrongful death attorney is the best way to get all your particular questions answered.
Learn whether or not you have a wrongful death case and how such cases are handled successfully, then contact a trusted and experienced Houston wrongful death attorney at Grimes & Fertitta today by calling 713-224-7644 today for a free consultation.
What qualifies as a wrongful death lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit is brought when someone who otherwise would have had a personal injury claim was killed by their injuries. The death must have been caused by either negligence or intentional acts on the part of the defendant. The death must also create a financial burden for the surviving family members.
How do you prove a wrongful death has occurred?
When our clients ask us, “What is a wrongful death lawsuit?” most of them are actually asking what is required to prove an instance of wrongful death. In order to meet the legal definition of wrongful death, those filing suit must be able to prove four wrongful death elements:
- That the death was caused wholly or to some extent by the defendant’s negligence, recklessness, or carelessness.
- That this negligence was a breach of duty to the victim, meaning that it was the defendant’s duty to provide safety or care to the victim.
- How this breach of duty caused the death of the victim.
- And that because of this death, the surviving family members of the victim incurred significant damages (medical expenses, funeral costs, potential income, and pain and suffering, and more).
Proving these four wrongful death elements requires evidence. An experienced wrongful death attorney will know what kind of evidence to look for, will have access to the subject-matter experts needed to testify to the truth of that evidence, and will know how to present your case in an effective and convincing manner.
What is NOT a wrongful death lawsuit?
Personal injury lawsuits do not bring criminal charges. This distinction means that when an individual or institution is sued for wrongful death, they are not being charged with murder. It also indicates that the burden of proof for murder and the burden of proof for wrongful death is different.
Perhaps the most frequently referenced examples of how these two legal classifications differ are the criminal and civil trials of O.J. Simpson. In 1995, Simpson was tried for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife, and Ronald Lyle Goldman, her friend, in a criminal trial. He was found Not Guilty on both counts; the jury felt that the case against him had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
In 1997, however, the families of Brown and Goldman won wrongful death lawsuits against Simpson in a civil trial, after which they received punitive and compensatory damages. The jury found him liable because the cases of wrongful death had been proved with a preponderance of evidence.
Steps in a wrongful death lawsuit
After our clients ask, “What is a wrongful death lawsuit?” their followup questions typically revolve around the wrongful death lawsuit process. Frankly, much must occur in between the moment you discover your loved one has been killed to the moment you receive compensation. Here is a general breakdown of what a wrongful death lawsuit will involve.
1. Determining your eligibility to file a claim
In Texas, the spouse, children (of any age), legally adopted children, parents, surviving adoptive parents, or executor of the estate of the deceased may file a wrongful death claim jointly or otherwise. Siblings and grandparents of the deceased may not file wrongful death claims.
The estate executor must wait three months after the death before filing a claim, and the executor may not file a claim if a family member has done so within those three months or has legally blocked the estate from filing a claim.
Who gets the money in a wrongful death lawsuit?
In Texas, the judge or jury will typically divide the compensation amongst the remaining family members affected by the death, taking into account the demonstrated financial losses of each individual family member.
Statute of limitations
In Texas, the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death claim is two years from the date of death. There are exceptions to this rule, including:
- You discovered that negligence caused the death only after the two-year period had passed (and provided you did your due diligence in discovering the misconduct or negligence up to that time).
- You were a minor at the time of the wrongful death
- You suffered a mental or physical impairment during the two-year period that prevented you from filing suit.
2. Finding a lawyer
Once you’ve established whether or not you’re eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit, you’ll want to find a lawyer. Wrongful death is a part of personal injury law, so prospective clients should search for a personal injury lawyer in Houston. Some law firms will have more experience than others handling different types of wrongful death cases. Try to find a firm that has won cases comparable to yours. One way to narrow your search is to look up personal injury lawyers by the cause of injury or death. For example, you can search for a Houston car accident lawyer, a Houston brain injury lawyer, a Houston product liability lawyer, etc.
Seek out a firm that has a demonstrated track record, communicates well with its clients, maintains a reasonable caseload, and has the resources necessary to find evidence and provide expert witnesses.
3. Determining whether or not you have a case
Here is where knowing the answer to the question “What is a wrongful death lawsuit?” really comes in handy. You and your wrongful death lawyer will want to work together to establish whether or not you have or can build a successful case for proving wrongful death based on the four elements described above.
Your lawyer may be able to help you recover and/or discover helpful evidence and gather the expert witnesses required to substantiate your claims.
4. Gathering and filing documents
If you and your wrongful death lawyer decide to move forward with your case, your attorney should assist you with submitting a notice a complaint. During this time, it is wise to begin gathering the following:
- A copy of the death certificate from the department of health;
- Autopsy results, if possible;
- A list of all the survivors;
- Funeral and medical bills;
- Support for cost estimates of the loss of earnings and income, loss of support and services, loss of companionship, and the pain and suffering of survivors.
5. Beginning settlement negotiations
It often saves time if you and the defendant are able to settle out of court, and a skilled lawyer will be more qualified to negotiate on your behalf. However, we encourage you to be wary of lawyers who pursue settlements against your best interests. Should the defendant fail to agree to a settlement figure that compensates you adequately for your loss, only top-quality wrongful death lawyers have what it takes to prepare for and go to trial.
Other frequently asked questions regarding wrongful death lawsuits
How long does it take for a wrongful death lawsuit to run its course?
Like any other type of lawsuit, wrongful death lawsuits can run from several months to years. The length of your lawful death lawsuit will depend on how fast you’re able to collect evidence as well as whether or not (and how quickly) your representation can negotiate a reasonable settlement or you decide to go to trial. A more experienced lawyer will be more likely to avoid time-consuming mistakes.
How much is a wrongful death lawsuit worth?
The amount of damages you will receive for your claim will be dependent upon the expenses you incurred as a result of the wrongful death as well as the types of damages you seek and your representative ability to acquire a suitable settlement or present a case well during a trial.
Have more questions about what isn’t and what is a wrongful death lawsuit? Grimes & Fertitta can help.
Knowing what is a wrongful death lawsuit and what isn’t is just part of the battle. If you have lost a loved one to wrongful death, you need a law firm that can take on the burden of legal fights for you so that you can focus on recovering and moving on.
Grimes & Fertitta can be that law firm. As former insurance lawyers, we know all the tricks and tactics that individuals, institutions, and companies use to dodge their obligation to provide you with your rightful compensation. We have the resources and the determination needed to fight for you and win.