Wrongful death occurs when someone’s negligence or bad intent causes the death of another.
- Wrongful death differs from murder to the extent that in a murder trial, guilt must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt”, while in a wrongful death suit, only fault by a “preponderance of the evidence” is required, a lower standard of proof.
- Civil courts hear wrongful death suits, verses criminal courts for murder cases. Because of this and depending on the circumstances, the statute of limitations can vary, so it is best to consult a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible after the incident has occurred.
- An experienced wrongful death lawyer will be able to guide you as to which parties you can sue for compensation. Compensation can take the form of medical and funeral expenses, loss of income, and survivor benefits.
The concept of “wrongful death” is a broad one but, in Missouri, it means a death that happens as a result of another person’s negligence or reckless actions. Wrongful deaths can therefore occur in almost any context, ranging from a car accident, a slip and fall accident, medical malpractice, product liability, a death at the workplace, intentional acts of another party, and many more circumstances.
Because, by definition, the injured party in a wrongful death action has died, a threshold question to all wrongful death cases is what party can bring a wrongful death action in Missouri. A wrongful death action is a cause of action (a type of lawsuit), brought by someone other than the deceased person to recover for damages resulting from the death. In general, who can bring a wrongful death action is governed by Missouri statute. Missouri creates three general categories of plaintiffs: if there are any individuals in the “higher” category that are bring a wrongful death action, they are required to sue, and others in a “lower” category are prohibited from suing. The first category includes the deceased’s spouse, the parents of the deceased, the deceased’s offspring (natural or adopted), and the children’s children if the deceased’s children are dead. If there are no plaintiffs in this first category, the second category includes siblings of the deceased, or the sibling’s children if they themselves are deceased. The third category is for a “plaintiff ad litem”—an individual appointed by a Missouri court to represent the deceased’s interests. This individual need not even necessarily be related to the deceased individual, however, the plaintiff ad litem represents the interests of the heirs of the deceased, meaning that any money recovered will be given to the deceased’s heirs.
Because of the complexity of Missouri law, if the decedent has died without close family, it is highly advisable that a lawyer who specializes in wrongful death actions be consulted to determine who might be legally entitled to bring a suit on the deceased’s behalf. A court, as noted, can appoint a special plaintiff to pursue legal action against the at fault party if close family cannot be identified.
Suits for wrongful deaths that result from intentional acts are usually investigated criminally (for example, as a homicide), prior to being pursued civilly. There are numerous differences between a criminal and civil trial in the case of an intentional death. A criminal trial seeks to apportion criminal fault for the death: for example, through criminal penalties like imprisonment. Criminal courts are constrained by more restrictive rules of evidence, meaning that certain relevant pieces of evidence cannot be entered into the trial proceedings. Almost all criminal cases are tried before a jury, and require the highest legal standard to be met, the “beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” sometimes thought to mean a 98% or 99% certainty that the crime has occurred. A criminal trial does not result in, nor is it intended to result in, financial compensation for the family of the deceased individual.
In contrast, the goal of a civil trial is to compensate, usually through monetary damages, the victims of the death. A civil trial is often held before a judge, instead of a full jury (or, more frequently, is resolved before a trial), has more relaxed evidentiary rules (permitting more relevant evidence to be entered into trial), and the case must not be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Civil trials are brought by an injured party or, in the case of a wrongful death, by the deceased party’s family, whereas a criminal trial is bought by a state or federal prosecutor.
However, importantly, the perpetrator of the act does not need to be found legally guilty at a criminal trial for the family of the deceased to pursue a wrongful death claim. Numerous cases throughout the country, and in Missouri, have demonstrated that an alleged perpetrator of a crime, found not guilty at a criminal trial, may still be civilly liable for their actions. For example, in Missouri, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the decision not to charge the police officer involved in the shooting absolved the officer of criminal responsibility, but did not absolve him, or the police department, of civil responsibility: that is, the possibility that the officer and/or the department may need to pay significant funds to the family of the deceased. Indeed, the Michael Brown civil case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum after a wrongful death lawsuit brought by his family. Unfortunately, however, many perpetrators of homicide (whether found guilty in a criminal case or not) do not have sufficient assets to cover the damages caused by their acts, and the financial burden of bringing a lawsuit often dwarfs the expected recovery. Most insurance policies, like home insurance policies or umbrella policies, do not cover intentional acts (as they might in the case of unintentional wrongful deaths). These sorts of claims are therefore difficult to pursue except against the very wealthy.
Except for when international as described above, wrongful death claims are generally considered using normal negligence principles, or the principles applicable to the type of injury sustained. These principles are factually and legally specific to the underlying action that caused the death. For example, if the death was caused by a defective product, Missouri laws and civil cases governing bringing suits under a product liability claim would apply. Similarly, if the death was caused by a traffic accident, Missouri laws governing traffic accidents would apply. In general, however, the deceased’s estate must prove that there was a duty to protect against the death that occurred—for example, in the case of a traffic accident, all drivers have a duty to drive safely on the road. Next, the estate must prove that a breach of this duty occurred—for example, a driver was driving while intoxicated. Next, the estate must prove sufficient causation—for example, because the driver was driving his car while drunk, he hit the deceased’s car at high speed. Finally, the estate must prove that injuries occurred—usually, in the case of a wrongful death, this is obvious, because the deceased has died.
If the deceased has died as a result of a defective product, instead of due to a negligence accident (like in a car accident), a different legal theory can apply called strict product liability. Strict liability in product liability cases in Missouri means that any entity in the stream of commerce for a given product can be liable for injuries resulting from using that product, even if that party was not negligent in the creation of the product, provided that three standards are met: that the product was used in an “intended or reasonably foreseeable manner” (which can include reasonably foreseeable misuse), that the product was in a defective condition when it left the possession of the party being sued, and that the defective product was the “legal cause” of the injuries suffered. This means that, for example, if a manufacturer created a defective product, shipped the already defective product to Walmart using UPS, and sold it to a consumer shopping at Walmart, the designer, manufacturer, UPS, and Walmart could all be hypothetically liable for injuries suffered by the customer, despite UPS and Walmart being entirely uninvolved in the creation of the defect.
Strict liability is therefore an extremely powerful tool for injured plaintiffs. If a family member has died as a result of a defective product, the family need only show that the product was defective, and can then pursue possible legal claims against a host of potential defendants. Moreover, all of the normal damages recoverable during a negligence action can be recovered in a strict liability action even without a showing of direct fault, and potentially from a large host of well-pocketed defendants.
Beyond the normal damages recoverable under ordinary negligence or product liability actions, the estate, such as the surviving family, bringing the suit usually is entitled to additional damages. Broadly, these additional damages are known as damages recoverable under a “wrongful death” action, and damages recovered under a “survivorship claim.”
In Missouri, damages under a wrongful death cause of action brought by the deceased’s estate can be both economic (financial) in nature, and noneconomic. For example, if the deceased was financially responsible for others, such as young children, a spouse, or parents, a wrongful death action would seek to recover the amount of money that these family members would no longer receive as a result of the death. These damages can be quite astronomical: for example, consider a single parent working as a doctor of a newborn child, who might have been expected to provide for the child financially until the child’s 18th birthday, or the young attorney spouse of a non-working wife who might have been expected to support the wife for many decades from a sizeable salary. The family of a child that was killed might be entitled to the financial support that child may have provided the family, or the salary that child might have generated, had the child survived into working adulthood.
Missouri also permits recovery for so-called noneconomic “loss of consortium” damages. These damages include loss of services around the house, such as raising children, household chores, loss of love, affection, comfort, sexual relations, and other, similar, intangible services provided. Finally, the estate can also claim economic damages for the deceased’s funeral and burial expenses. In rare cases, the estate can also sue for punitive damages: these are damages intended to punish the wrongdoer, and are awarded for intentional acts, or acts that are determined to be reckless, like in a suit against an extremely intoxicated driver, or against someone waving a loaded gun around in a crowded shopping market. Punitive damages are rare in wrongful death actions when a single individual is involved, but might be quite common in class action lawsuits, for example, if a manufacturer of a product is found to be liable for the deaths of many people.
Importantly, however, all of these types of damages only accrue after the deceased has actually died. So, for example, if the deceased is struck by a car, but survives for several years more in a coma until finally dying, a wrongful death action will only cover damages that occur after the death, and not damages that might accrue in between the accident and the death. This can result in the odd scenario where the family of a comatose accident victim, who survives for many years after an accident but is otherwise vegetative, might be entitled to substantially less (an incur significantly higher medical costs) in a wrongful death action than were the victim to have died at the scene of the accident.
To correct for this seeming injustice, Missouri permits a deceased’s estate to “step in the shoes” of the deceased for the pain, suffering, medical bills, and loss of wages that might occur in between the accident and the death. This is called a “survivorship claim” and is legally distinct from the wrongful death claim discussed above. In a survivorship claim, the estate can recover all of the damages that the deceased might have been able to recover, had the deceased been able to bring a lawsuit. These include medical bills, pain and suffering prior to death, loss of wages prior to death, and so on. If a deceased survives for weeks, months, or years between the accident and death, a survivorship claim can amount to a sizeable recovery for the deceased’s estate, particularly if the nature of the injuries sustained were painful and the deceased was conscious and aware of these injuries. Deaths that are more traumatic (for example, a car accident) might yield greater recoveries than deaths that occur while the deceased is asleep or otherwise not in pain, such as under anesthesia during a surgical procedure.
Although wrongful deaths can have a tremendous emotional impact on the family and friends of the deceased, it is incredibly important to consult a local Missouri attorney to determine the relevant facts and legal options that the deceased’s estate may have for recovery. Wrongful death actions can result in extremely large financial recoveries, particularly when the deceased was young, working in a high paying job, was financially responsible for others, or was married or in a domestic partnership with children. Skilled attorneys who specialize in personal injury and wrongful death can determine the best course of action for an estate to pursue, and can work quickly to preserve evidence and other important legal rights.