Thre are over 160,000 deaths annually in the United States that result from unintentional injury. Oftentimes, these result in the spouse or family members of the deceased filing a lawsuit against the party responsible.
But, the wrongful death elements aren’t always readily apparent, and it can be difficult to know what to look for.
Not sure where to start? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Let’s take a look at everything you need to know.
The Duty of Care
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, ‘duty of care’ refers to the obligation the defendant had for the deceased’s well-being. For instance, an employer has a certain duty of care for their employees and customers and must ensure that their workspace adheres to industry-related safety standards.
To further elaborate, let’s assume that a man named Daniel owns a convenient store. He’s responsible for eliminating hazards to both the individuals who work there and the customers who come into the store.
This typically includes cleaning up spills as quickly as possible, replacing faulty equipment, etc. If someone is injured and dies as a result of David’s negligence, he could be vulnerable to a civil lawsuit.
Wrongful death isn’t limited to accidents that occur at a business, though. A driver who breaks traffic laws and ends up killing another individual was not adhering to their inherent duty of care while on the road.
Was The Duty of Care Breached?
The vast majority of the time, the situation isn’t always straightforward enough to quickly deduce that the duty of care was breached. For instance, an employer could claim they were unaware that a particular safety hazard existed.
It would then be up to the plaintiff to prove that they were aware that the hazard existed and that they intentionally disregarded it.
This is often seen in the case of faulty equipment or damaged property, where a business owner refuses to make the proper repairs or simply doesn’t prioritize doing so until it’s too late.
As long as it can be proven that the duty of care was breached in the situation that resulted in someone’s death, a wrongful death suit has evidence to work with.
This is a key term that is part of what makes wrongful death scenarios different than manslaughter or homicide cases.
For instance, someone who intentionally breaches their duty of care would be committing a crime that’s more aligned with assault. To help put it into perspective, negligence is the unintentional breach of duty of care that results from a lack of proactivity.
This could also include action and isn’t limited only to inaction, such as if an employer intentionally used vehicles in poor condition as part of their company’s fleet.
If negligence can’t be proven, though, (such as if there’s no supporting evidence that a business owner knew about a loose handrail), then a settlement may not be able to be reached.
Even if the plaintiff is able to prove that the defendant was negligent and breached their duty of care, this information isn’t enough on its own to win the case — they must also prove that the deceased’s injuries were a direct result of this negligence.
In the context of a car accident, someone who was speeding and got into a collision that resulted in the other party’s death is not always at fault for their injuries. For instance, the other party’s vehicle could have had an underlying mechanical failure (such as a faulty airbag) that resulted in their death.
What About The Burden of Proof?
Interestingly, civil cases have a much lower burden of proof than criminal cases do, presumably because the end result is reaching a settlement and not revoking someone’s personal freedom.
Although the exact standards will differ from state to state, the burden of proof isn’t required to be ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Instead, it’s often enough to prove that ‘it’s more than likely’ that the circumstances were the result of the defendant’s action/inaction.
In many cases, it’s also not required that the jury reaches a unanimous verdict after its deliberation.
It’s also important to note that there’s no inherent benefit from providing a large quantity of evidence during the case. Instead, the overall quality of the evidence (even if it’s only a handful of witness testimonies) is emphasized.
As an example, a single video that conveys the defendant’s negligence will likely carry more weight in court than a handful of witnesses who couldn’t quite remember what they saw or heard.
Who’s Responsible for Filing the Lawsuit?
In general, close family members of the deceased are the ones who file a wrongful death lawsuit. But, this can vary in certain scenarios.
If the deceased had a valid will at the time of death, the court will typically appoint the will’s executor. The court may also appoint the personal representative of the deceased’s estate.
This individual files the lawsuit on behalf of all of the deceased’s heirs and serves as the plaintiff in the case. As with any criminal or civil proceeding, hiring a reputable attorney is an essential part of the process to optimize your chances of the outcome being in your favor.
Understanding the Wrongful Death Elements Can Seem Difficult
But it doesn’t have to be.
With the above information about the wrongful death elements in mind, you’ll be well on your way toward making the decision that’s best for you.
Want to learn more about how we can help? Feel free to get in touch with us today to see what we can do.