A reader wrote in with this question: “My 34-year-old son passed away last September. Both his bosses and the police are treating his death as a murder that’s under investigation. I was wondering, what exactly is a wrongful death suit? Would that be something I could file as a parent on his behalf?”
First, our deepest condolences to this reader. Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy. These circumstances sound particularly trying, too.
To answer this reader’s question, yes, you can file a wrongful death suit in civil court on a victim’s behalf. However, bear in mind that you must file such claims in civil court, as it’s not a criminal matter. And only immediate family members can file such wrongful death claims. If murder claims the life of someone you love, consult a personal injury attorney about your potential wrongful death case.
Below, we’ll review a famous case to help readers better understand how wrongful death claims work in murder cases. Then, we’ll review the basics of what a wrongful death suit is and in when you can potentially file one.
Wrongful Death Verdict Against O.J. Simpson Awards Millions to Victims’ Families
Readers may remember the famous wrongful death civil suit filed against former NFL football star, OJ Simpson, in 1997. In 1994, a Los Angeles criminal jury acquitted Simpson of murder charges involving the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
However, Goldman’s father, Fred, filed a wrongful death civil case against Simpson shortly after that. Under California law, a murder victim’s heirs can file claims for loss of emotional or financial support. After reviewing all available evidence, jurors found Simpson liable for Goldman’s death and for assaulting his ex-wife, Nicole. On February 4, 1997, jurors ordered Simpson to pay the Goldman family $8.5 million in compensatory damages. In addition, the court awarded both Goldman and Brown’s families $12.5 million each in punitive damages.
This is perhaps the most famous wrongful death case awarded significant financial compensation during the past 30 years.
What Is a Wrongful Death Suit?
If someone dies because another person has a duty to care for them and breaches that duty, then the victim’s family may file a wrongful death suit.
An example might be a manufacturer who makes a faulty product that kills someone when used as directed. Or it could be an employer who intentionally cut corners to save money on safe working conditions, knowing those decisions could potentially kill employees. Families of patients who die under a doctor’s care can also file wrongful death suits.
A simple way to think about it is that it’s not unlike a personal injury claim. However, in these specific cases, the victim is deceased, not injured or disabled.
In order to prove guilt in a wrongful death suit, you need three things:
- First, you must show the defendant acted negligently or intentionally committed an act that resulted in another person’s death.
- Second, you must prove the victim died as a result of the defendant’s negligent or intentionally reckless behavior.
- Third, you must show there are damages associated with the person’s death you can recover in the form of compensation.
Are There Different Types of Wrongful Death Suits?
There are two types of wrongful death suits: Those that are intentional, and those that are negligent.
An intentional wrongful death suit alleges the defendant intentionally committed an action (or failed to protect someone) that knowingly resulted in injury or death.
A negligent wrongful death suit alleges the defendant acted negligently and failed to uphold their duty to protect the deceased victim.
To act negligently means to act in a way that shows less care than what an average person would under the same circumstances. This means, for instance, that if you sue a doctor, the court compares their actions against a “reasonable doctor’s” actions. Let’s look closer at each of these elements.
How Is a a Personal Injury Lawyer Qualified to Help Me?
The main difference between a wrongful death and personal injury claim is that someone died as a result of the defendant’s negligence. Alternatively, a personal injury suit alleges the defendant’s actions seriously injured or disabled the plaintiff.
It’s worth noting that both types of claims are civil suits, not criminal cases. This means wrongful death suits have different standards to meet than a criminal murder charge. Specifically, you must prove a civil suit with a preponderance of the evidence. For criminal murder charges, you must prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since personal injury lawyers handle civil claims, not criminal ones, they’re qualified to help a murder victim’s family seek compensation.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit?
Most commonly, a spouse or child will file this type of claim. Certain others, including parents, have also won significant cash settlements after losing a loved one. But for this reader, it might be harder to bring a case in her son’s death unless she can show damages resulting from it.
Where Do I File a Claim?
You must file suits like these in the proper jurisdiction to secure any compensation. In this reader’s case, it’s most likely in the same place where her son’s death occurred. Moreover, she must file her claim before the statute of limitations expires. While that varies from state to state, in most places, you must file a claim no more than two years after the death occurs.
Should I Hire an Attorney?
Hiring an attorney in a situation like this can be particularly helpful. An experienced lawyer who’s handled similar cases can tell you how much your claim could be worth. An attorney can also file the paperwork required in a timely manner to assure the best possible outcome. To speak with a nearby attorney for free about your claim, complete this personal injury case evaluation form now.
Lisa Allen is a writer and editor who lives in suburban Kansas City. She holds MFAs in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, both from the Solstice Low-Residency Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. Prior to becoming a writer, Lisa worked as a paralegal, where she specialized in real estate in and around Chicago.