Each year in the United States, an average of 3.38 million people pass away.
Of course, death is a tragedy under any circumstances. But it’s especially tragic when it happens from a preventable accident or injury. Sadly, over 200,000 people die each year because of wrongful death — in other words, a death that could (and should) have been prevented.
Did you recently lose a loved one to homicide, a traffic accident, or medical malpractice? Are you working on a wrongful death claim with your attorney?
If so, you’ll need to make sure their legal team has everything they need to file and win your wrongful death case. Keep reading for our all-inclusive wrongful death document checklist.
What You Need for Your Wrongful Death Case
Your emotional attachment to the deceased makes their “wrongful death” obvious.
Unfortunately, things aren’t as black and white in the eyes of the law. To win any type of wrongful death case, you’ll need an extensive paper trail. It must prove that their death was preventable and is creating hardship for you (more on that later).
The exact documents you’ll need to show depend on the nature of the case. When talking to your lawyer, they should provide a wrongful death document checklist that includes these 10 items.
1. The Death Certificate
If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to order a copy of the death certificate. This is by far one of the most important pieces of evidence on this list. It shows the exact cause of death, which was verified by the coroner.
For example, if your loved one died from their injuries after a traffic accident, the death certificate leaves no room for doubt about the cause.
The easiest way to obtain a death certificate is to order it through the funeral home or mortuary. If too much time has already passed, check with your state vital records office or county clerk. California allows you to request a certified copy online, and other states have similar websites for vital records.
2. Police Reports
If your loved one died in a car accident or a premises liability incident (such as a slip-and-fall), law enforcement was likely called to the scene. In these cases and similar situations, the responding officers will write an official report of the accident.
Aside from recording details of the incident, the officers will also collect evidence and gather witness testimonies. This information goes into their official report, which is another invaluable item on your wrongful death document checklist.
As your wrongful death lawyer works on your case, they’ll need the police report to understand exactly what happened before and after the accident. They may also contact eyewitnesses or visit the scene to get a more complete picture. All of this helps them build a stronger argument for your case.
If you don’t have a copy of the report, you can request it through the local law enforcement office that drafted that document. You may visit the police station in person or, in most cases, you can request a copy online or over the phone.
3. Medical Records
Was a medical error to blame for your loved one’s death? Tragically, this is the outcome for over 250,000 people each year.
Whether your loved one died from an accident, negligence, or a medical mistake, you’ll want to gather every relevant medical record. This might include:
- EMS records
- Hospital records
- Emergency room records
- Urgent care records
- Attending physician records
- Nursing home patient records
- A list of all medical providers involved
- Contact information for all medical providers
- A list of all medications, procedures, and other treatments leading up to the time of death
Your attorney will review these records for any errors or discrepancies, particularly if you suspect medical malpractice. They’ll also look for signs that any wrongdoing was changed, covered up, or removed from the records.
In the event of an accident, these medical records will confirm the coroner’s findings on the death certificate. The more evidence you have from different sources — especially when they all say the same thing — the stronger your case will be.
4. Autopsy Report
Medical malpractice is one of the most common reasons for a wrongful death claim. In addition to your loved one’s medical records, you may have a valid reason to request an autopsy report.
As an example, do you suspect that a surgical error was a direct cause of death? What about a lethal medication error (i.e., giving insulin to a patient who’s not diabetic)?
A full examination of the body along with a toxicology report can reveal the true cause of death — even if the medical records state otherwise.
Each state has different policies when it comes to autopsy reports. Typically you can order a final report within 30-45 days, although more complex cases (such as suspected medical malpractice) may take up to 90 days. You can make your request at the coroner’s office or at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for your state.
5. All Relevant Bills & Costs
In the US, the average cost of dying is nearly $20,000. This includes medical treatment fees, cremation fees, and funeral services. If the deceased is buried in a casket in a traditional plot, the costs are even higher.
Unfortunately, many families aren’t prepared for these final costs. Only 52% of Americans carry a life insurance policy, and over half of these are underinsured.
In addition to the grieving process and the shock of the unexpected death, many survivors find themselves drowning in bills related to their loved one’s death. This might include:
- Ambulance bills
- Emergency room bills
- Hospital/surgical bills
- Nursing home bills
- Cremation fees
- Burial fees
- Funeral service fees
Every one of these costs should be included as part of your wrongful death claim. Of course, there are also intangible costs associated with losing someone, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
6. Photos & Videos
Even the most well-written police report can’t capture the scene as accurately as a photograph.
If you have access to photos or videos of the scene of the accident, be sure to include these when you file your wrongful death case. The same is true of photos or videos that document your loved one’s injuries, post-op condition, or other treatments.
It also doesn’t hurt to include some personal photos of your loved one with their family and friends. This will help to establish relationships as well as the emotional losses of the surviving family members.
7. “Duty of Care” Relationship
In the event of negligence, you must establish that the negligent party failed to fulfill their duty to care for the victim. This is true no matter which type of wrongful death case you’re dealing with.
- A doctor failed to prevent unnecessary suffering or harm to their patient
- A driver failed to obey traffic laws by driving recklessly with no regard for others
- A business owner failed to repair and/or block off a broken curb in their parking lot
- A landlord failed to provide a fire escape ladder which resulted in the death of their tenant
In each of these scenarios, the negligent party did not uphold their responsibility to ensure their patient, customer, or tenant was safe. For traffic accidents, it’s understood that every driver on the road owes a duty of care to other drivers and pedestrians.
Your lawyer will use every document and record possible to establish that this duty of care was breached. This is the first (and most important) step in building a strong case.
Think of a wrongful death case this way: If the deceased had survived, they would have been entitled to file a personal injury lawsuit. It’s your lawyer’s responsibility to comb through documents and establish the third party’s responsibility for your loved one’s injury — and premature death.
8. Tax Returns & Financial Records
Your attorney must accurately estimate the financial impact that the loss of your loved one will have on your family.
To do this, you’ll need to provide at least two (but ideally five) years of tax returns. This should include the supporting income documentation of 1099s and W-2 forms.
In addition, you can provide recent pay stubs and bank statements that show your loved one’s financial contribution to the family. If they were the head of household, their lost wages will become a major part of the settlement you’re seeking. This is especially important if their income supported a spouse, children, elderly parents, or other dependents.
Your lawyer will use this information to estimate how much money your loved one would have earned if they survived. They’ll calculate their expected income based on the number of years before their retirement. This figure, along with relevant bills and emotional losses, will factor into your final settlement amount.
9. Family Vital Records
To establish all relationships within the family, you’ll need to supply certified copies of vital records. This might include:
- Birth certificates
- Marriage certificates
- Divorce decrees
- Adoption papers
- Last will and testament
Provide these for each surviving member of the family — spouse, children, parents, etc. Even if it doesn’t seem necessary at the time, it’s best if your lawyer has these documents on record.
10. Evidence of Emotional Distress & Losses
As mentioned earlier, not all losses are tangible. Your loved one’s passing amounts to far more than missed paychecks and a funeral bill. Emotional losses often are harder to deal with than financial losses.
Fortunately, the court recognizes emotional distress as a legitimate type of damage. It can affect your physical and mental health as well as your personal relationships and your ability to work or take care of your family.
In the event of wrongful death, the surviving spouse can claim loss of consortium. Meanwhile, children or other dependents can claim the loss of parental guidance and support.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply state that you’re sad, anxious, or depressed. Like everything else on this wrongful death document checklist, you’ll need evidence to support your claim.
Specifically, you’ll need to demonstrate these four things to the court:
Onset of Symptoms
First, you must establish cause and effect — in other words, that your symptoms started and are continuing as a result of your loved one’s death.
Document all changes to your daily routine, including your eating, sleeping, working, and social habits. Keep a personal journey that tracks each symptom, when it started, and how long it lasts. Consider wearing an electronic health tracker that monitors your heart rate, blood pressure, and sleep habits.
Intensity of Distress
This isn’t the time to “be tough” or try to hide your emotions. The more intensely you’re grieving and the more prolonged your symptoms, the greater the odds of the court ruling in your favor.
Related Physical Symptoms
Emotional distress doesn’t only affect your thoughts and feelings. It can also cause a host of physical symptoms such as:
- Digestive problems
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Low libido
- Frequent illnesses
In your journal, be sure to document any physical symptoms you’re experiencing as a result of emotional distress.
Validation From a Medical Professional
Finally, you’ll need to provide records from your doctor, counselor, or another medical professional. They should validate that your symptoms are real and a direct result of the trauma you experienced from your loved one’s death.
Your Wrongful Death Document Checklist
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed in the wake of losing a loved one. While you’re grieving, it’s easy to overlook some of the smaller details of your wrongful death claim.
Bookmark this wrongful death document checklist and refer back to it as you build your case. Most importantly, be sure to share it with your attorney.
Speaking of the law, do you need a wrongful death lawyer to evaluate your case?
The legal team at Sweet Law has years of experience helping families like yours recover compensation. No amount of money can bring your loved one back, but you can get the financial help you need to ease the burden of their passing.
Contact our office today or call 1-800-674-7854 for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.