Suddenly losing a loved one can be traumatizing, devastating, and confusing for family and friends. Dealing with the expenses and emotional fallout of loss is often exhausting and overwhelming, especially if you have reason to believe that the death might be wrongful.
Wrongful death can be a challenging area of law, made more so by the emotional pain that a family is dealing with in the midst of pursuing a claim. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about wrongful death:
What is Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is the legal term for a civil claim that follows a death. The laws for what constitutes a wrongful death depend on the state in which the claim is filed. In Massachusetts, wrongful deaths are defined as a fatality resulting from the negligence or reckless actions of another person.
Who Can Be Held Liable for a Wrongful Death?
According to state law, the person who, through their negligence or reckless actions, caused the death of someone else, may be held responsible for the resulting damages.
Negligence occurs when a person who owes a duty of care to another person fails to act as a reasonable person would in the same situation. For example, a business owner learns of a potential safety hazard in their workplace. As the owner, they have a duty of care to their employees to protect them against such a hazard. If they fail to do so, they may be held liable for any deaths that occur due to that hazard.
The same principle can also apply to larger institutions. Companies must take precautions to make sure their products are reasonably safe for customers and have adequate safety warnings.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
The administrator or executor of the deceased’s estate must file the wrongful death suit and represent their interests in court. They can hire a lawyer to assist them or act on their behalf.
When Do I Have to File a Wrongful Death Suit?
In Massachusetts, there is a statute of limitations of three years for wrongful death claims. The rule generally applies from the date of deceased’s passing.
If the estate administrator learns that the death is a wrongful one while performing their duties, the statute of limitations applies from the date of the discovery. It is crucial to file quickly in a wrongful death suit—evidence and witness testimony can degrade or fade over time.
Is Wrongful Death a Crime?
Wrongful death is a civil suit, not a criminal offense. However, wrongful death claims are often filed at the same time as criminal proceedings. The most famous example in recent history is the O.J. Simpson trial. Simpson was charged with murder in criminal court by the state of California and sued for wrongful death in civil court by the victims’ families.
How Do I Prove That a Death is Wrongful?
In a civil suit such as wrongful death, the burden of proof for the plaintiff is actually lower than for a criminal case. The plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was negligent or reckless in their actions and that those actions directly led to the victim’s death. Evidence in a civil suit might include evidence similar to what is presented in a criminal case, such as witness testimonies, documents, and video recordings.
Does a Wrongful Death Claim Involve a Jury?
It can. Massachusetts civil law states that either the plaintiff or the defendant can request a jury trial. A lawyer can help you determine if that is the right move for you.
What Can I Expect If I Win My Claim?
By Massachusetts law, if the defendant is found liable, they must pay the fair monetary value of the deceased to the people entitled to receive compensation for damages—such as the spouse, children, or next of kin. The award is typically based on the financial status and expected income of the victim as well as the companionship and guidance they offered family and friends. The award may also include reasonable funeral costs.
The court may additionally award the plaintiff with punitive damages with a minimum of $5,000 if a preponderance of the evidence shows that the defendant was particularly malicious or deliberate in their reckless actions or acted with gross negligence.
A victory in court can’t bring back loved ones or truly heal the wounds from their passing, but it can ease the costs of bereavement and deliver a measure of justice to mourning family and friends. If you’ve lost someone and believe their death might be wrongful, don’t delay. Reach out for seasoned legal advice from Mazow | McCullough, P.C. today. We can assist you in determining your options and advocating for your lost loved one in court. For a free consultation, call (978) 744-8000.