Although there can be a lot of overlap, fatal accidents and wrongful death fall into separate legal categories. A person’s death is considered an accident when it wasn’t caused by the purposeful or negligent actions of another person or entity. In contrast, wrongful death refers to deaths caused by the negligence of another party.
Example of a Fatal Accident
To demonstrate the difference between a fatal accident and a wrongful death, imagine someone is using a ladder. There is nothing defective about the ladder, and no one else is nearby. While on the ladder, the victim loses their balance, falls, and dies. In this situation, the death was simply an accident.
Example of a Wrongful Death
To illustrate a scenario in which falling off a ladder and dying may constitute wrongful death, imagine the manufacturer produces a ladder with a defect. This defect causes the ladder to buckle under the weight of a person, and the fall causes their death. In this situation, the manufacturer’s negligence likely caused the death, potentially turning the situation from an accident into a wrongful death.
In many cases, the line between an accidental and wrongful death is not as clear. For instance, if a vehicle strikes another vehicle, causing death to a passenger in the second vehicle, the collision may be an accident, or the driver may be judged negligent. This judgment will depend on whether the driver was texting or breaking other rules of the road. To increase the chances of having your case ruled a wrongful death, you should work with an experienced attorney.
Wrongful Death Versus Homicide
In the ladder scenario, imagine someone bumps into the ladder, destabilizes it, and causes the victim to fall and die. The death may be considered a tragic, fatal accident, but depending on the surrounding factors and the person’s intent, this incident may be regarded as homicide.
If the individual bumped into the ladder with the intent of killing the victim, they might be guilty of murder. If they bumped into the ladder due to negligence — if they were distracted while operating a forklift which ran into the ladder — they may be guilty of negligent homicide or manslaughter.
There are also categories of criminal homicide that can apply in situations where the person did not mean to hurt the victim. The above categories all fall under the umbrella of criminal law, but wrongful death is a civil matter. As a result, someone can face both criminal and civil legal issues, and the outcomes may be different as the burden of proof varies for each.
Now, imagine the person who bumps into the ladder gets charged with criminal homicide by the state, but the trial concludes that the person was not guilty. However, the victim’s family still believes the person’s actions lead to their loved one’s death, so they bring forward a wrongful death suit. During the trial, the courts decide that the person is civilly liable. As a result, although the defendant was able to avoid criminal penalties such as prison time, they had to face civil penalties, namely compensating the victims for their loss.
Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
To be considered wrongful death, several elements need to be in place, including the following:
Duty of Care
The liable party needs to have a duty of care to the person who died. For instance, every time someone drives a motor vehicle, they have a duty of care to other drivers, bikers, and pedestrians on the road. Similarly, if someone runs a shop or a restaurant, they have a duty of care to their patrons to keep the premises in a reasonably safe manner.
In contrast, if the victim was trespassing on someone’s property, the property owner does not have a duty of care to that individual, and if they die while trespassing, their family likely doesn’t have the right to bring a lawsuit against the property owner.
The liable party must have breached their duty of care and acted negligently. For a driver, this can mean driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or not following the rules of the road. A shop owner, in contrast, may breach their duty of care by not keeping their premises safe.
The courts may consider a manufacturer to have acted negligently if they knowingly produced a dangerous product, falsely advertised a product, or made other lethal errors. As you can see, the form of negligence can vary depending on the situation, and the relationship between the liable party and the victim.
Actions That Lead to Death
Additionally, the liable party’s negligence must have led to the victim’s death.
The victim’s family or loved ones must have suffered damages related to the death. In a wrongful death case, the damages include monetary damages such as the deceased person’s final medical bills, funeral expenses, and lost inheritance.
While some of these items are pegged to direct costs, others are more subjective, like pain and suffering or loss of consortium. To ensure you get the best possible outcome in your case, work with an experienced wrongful death attorney who understands how to evaluate these damages and has a history of obtaining fair settlements.
What to Do When You’re Unsure If a Death Was Wrongful
If your loved one has died and you’re unsure if it’s a fatal accident or a case of wrongful death, then you should consult with a wrongful death attorney. At Mazow | McCullough, PC, we can offer you a no-cost case evaluation. We’ll assess your situation to determine if your loved one died as a result of negligence. If applicable, we can help you identify the liable party and decide how to move forward.
Nothing can bring your loved one back, but we may be able to help you to get the justice you deserve after suffering such a monumental loss. To learn more, contact us today.