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Proving Fault in a Wrongful Death Claim

When a loved one is killed because of the negligence of another person or entity, it can be very difficult to deal with the tragedy. But survivors of victims killed under circumstances of negligence can file a wrongful death claim through a civil lawsuit. Such a claim can help provide the family with legal recourse after the terrible circumstances of fatal injury, as well as providing them with financial support, help with funeral costs and other damages. In fact, state legislators have ensured families have this legal option for recourse through establishment of wrongful death and survivor statutes.

Death of a family member due to negligence or misconduct may also be due to the act of murder. Murder and criminal charges against an individual do not preclude that defendant from being held financially accountable in civil court. Criminal trials are frequently followed by civil trials for wrongful death. These trials use evidence that is similar to criminal trial evidence, but do not require the same level of proof as a criminal trial. It is not of importance whether an individual found liable for wrongful death is convicted of a crime.

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A good example of a civil penalty against an individual for wrongful death is O.J. Simpson. The football icon and actor was found not guilty in the criminal trial arising from the 1994 deaths of his former wife and her friend. A reasonable doubt was not established in the criminal trial. But Simpson was held financially accountable for wrongful death in the civil case because the evidence indicated his responsibility for the deaths, according to the civil trial.

Each state regulates these legal actions through its own wrongful death statutes establishing how the actions are brought to court. The actions may include those for personal injury, pain and suffering or expenses related to the death. The estate is the beneficiary of successful civil suit compensation, with the varied parties of the estate gaining disbursement of funds according to their position in the decedent’s will.

Components of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

A wrongful death lawsuit is justified according to the presence of the following:

  • Human death
  • Cause of death being due to another person’s negligence or intent to cause harm to that individual
  • Monetary injury is suffered by surviving family members

There are a number of circumstances which may lead to a wrongful death claim. These may include:

  • Medical malpractice that leads to the victim’s death
  • Accident in an airplane or automobile
  • Exposure through employment or occupation to hazardous substances or conditions
  • Criminal behavior by the defendant
  • Death occurring during a supervised activity

Certain factors must be proven, regardless of whether damages are sought due to wrongful death or negligence. Those factors include:

– Duty

Negligence is proven when the defendant owed the victim a duty of care, meaning the safety of the victim was owed by the defendant. In wrongful death cases, the judge will decide whether duty of care was owed to the victim by the defendant.

– Breach of Duty

When the judge determines the duty of care existed, the plaintiff must prove the duty of care was breached. As an example, negligent driving that results in the victim’s death may lead to proof that the driver was driving while distracted when the accident occurred. This is a breach of duty of due care, as part of which the driver was obligated to take care of the victim by driving safely. The plaintiff must ensure the jury is convinced that facts of the case are at least 50 percent likely to be true.

– Causation

The plaintiff is responsible for proving the cause of harm to the victim was a breach of duty. In the above scenario, the plaintiff must show how the defendant’s car caused the plaintiff’s death and not negligence of another party. If the plaintiff’s loved one was already deceased when the accident occurred or had suffered fatal injuries, it is highly unlikely that the jury will rule in the plaintiff’s favor.

– Damages

Damages suffered by the decedent must be proven by the plaintiff. When breach of duty and causation are proven, damages are automatically presumed by the court because the victim is deceased.

A personal injury attorney is qualified to guide and assist individuals through a wrongful death law suit. If you have suffered the loss of a loved one due to wrongful death, it is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible so a case may be developed according to circumstances, events and evidence.


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