The taking of the life of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent act of another person or persons.
If a person is killed because of the wrongful conduct of a person or persons, the decedent's heirs and other beneficiaries may file a wrongful death action against those responsible for the decedent's death. This area of Tort Law is governed by statute. Wrongful death statutes vary from state to state, but in general they define who may sue for wrongful death and what, if any, limits may be applied to an award of damages.
Originally, wrongful death statutes were created to provide financial support for widows and orphans and to motivate people to exercise care to prevent injuries. A wrongful death action is separate and apart from criminal charges, and neither proceeding affects nor controls the other. This means that a defendant acquitted of murder may be sued in a civil action by the victim's family for wrongful death.
An action for wrongful death may be brought for either an intentional or unintentional act that causes an injury that results in death. A blow to the head during an altercation that later results in death is an injury that is intentionally caused. The driver of an automobile who unintentionally causes the death of another in an accident may be held liable for Negligence. An individual who, in violation of local law, neglects to enclose a swimming pool in his yard can be held liable for the omission or failure to act if a child is attracted to the pool and subsequently drowns. Wrongful death statutes do not apply to an unborn fetus, as an individual does not have a distinct legal status until he is born alive. If an infant is born alive and later dies as a result of an injury that occurred prior to birth, an action may be brought for wrongful death.
Who May Sue
The individuals entitled to sue for wrongful death are enumerated in each state statute. Many statutes provide for recovery by a surviving spouse, next of kin, or children. Some states permit a surviving spouse to bring an action even in the event of a separation, but not if the surviving spouse was guilty of desertion or failure to provide support. Ordinarily, children may bring suit for the wrongful death of their parents, and parents may sue for the wrongful death of their children. In some states, only minor children are allowed to sue for the death of a parent. Similarly, some state statutes preclude a parent from recovery for the death of an adult child who is financially independent or married.
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