What is a Wrongful Death Claim?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A wrongful death claim is a lawsuit, brought by the surviving family members and/or loved ones of someone who was killed as a result of someone else’s careless (negligent) behavior or an intentional act. This lawsuit is usually brought against the person, persons or entity believed to be responsible for the death. Central to the wrongful death claim is proof that those filing the claim have been harmed as a result of the death. Monetary damages are an important part of these lawsuits and range from medical and funeral expenses to loss of future income and benefits. The specific types of damages that are typically sought are covered in Damages Awarded in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit.

Before wrongful death laws were passed in each state, wrongful death claims did not exist. These claims were not allowed under common law, the legal principles that had been passed down from England to the United State over many centuries. Under common law, negligence claims died with the victims of the negligence, and so survivors did not have the right to recover for the losses they suffered as a result of the death of their loved one. Now, of course, all states have wrongful death statutes, and even though they are not identically drafted, there are some common elements at their core. When filing a wrongful death claim, survivors must typically show:

  1. The person(s) being sued caused the death (completely or in part) of the victim.
  2. The person(s) being sued were either negligent when they caused the death, or are responsible for the death as a matter of law (strict liability).
  3. The victim’s spouse, dependents and/or beneficiaries are alive.
  4. The victim’s death has caused monetary losses, compensation for which is being sought.

This section of our Accident Law site does not cover the wrongful death laws for each and every state. Instead, we cover the general principles behind wrongful death claims. State laws differ as to who may bring a wrongful death lawsuit and who may be sued. For important information about both of these questions, see Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit? Contact an attorney who specializes in wrongful death cases in your area, someone who has specific knowledge regarding the laws in your state, if you believe you have a valid claim.

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