Wrongful Death Frequently Asked Questions
When someone dies because of another’s negligence, the surviving family members have the right to sue the person whose wrongful or intentional acts caused the death. When such a terrible loss occurs, the deceased person’s loved ones have questions and need help to figure out what they must do to recover the damages they suffered at another’s hands. A wrongful death action exists to compensate the heirs for the losses they suffered, both economic and emotional, for losing their loved one. Since money cannot replace a loved one, the heirs recover what a jury assigns, or an insurance company agrees to pay as a value for loss of companionship, security, guidance, advice, and financial support.
Aside from what legal action heirs should take and what they can recover, many people sitting down with a wrongful death attorney have questions regarding the wrongful death law, deadlines, and procedures. Here are the most common questions people ask about wrongful death lawsuits.
What is Wrongful Death in the Legal Context?
New Jersey law defines wrongful death as a death caused by someone’s negligence or wrongful actions. The wrongful death law allows loved ones to sue the person or entity that caused the death for damages they suffered and will suffer from the loss (N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1-6).
What Has to be Proven to Recover Damages in a Wrongful Death Action?
To successfully prosecute a wrongful death claim, a person must prove the defendant or defendants had a duty of care to the decedent that they breached, which caused a loved one to die. A duty of care is a legal responsibility toward others. For example, all drivers on the road have a duty of care toward other drivers and pedestrians to drive safely and not jeopardize others’ lives or property. Proving the breach of that duty caused the death may be apparent or require an investigation and experts, even an autopsy of the defendant. Driving records, accident reconstruction experts, surveillance video, and police reports are among the evidence that proves the cause of an accident, for example. An experienced wrongful death attorney knows how to investigate causes of death through the appropriate experts.
Who Files a Wrongful Death Claim With the Court?
The person named as Executor in the decedent’s will is the estate’s personal representative and the plaintiff in the wrongful death lawsuit. Represented by an attorney, the Executor sues the defendant on behalf of the beneficiaries named in the will, typically, the decedent’s family: spouse and children, or siblings and parents if unmarried and childless. The beneficiaries are those who inherit under the will.
If the decedent left no will, the court-appointed administrator of the estate is the plaintiff, and the beneficiaries are those relatives closest to the decedent, beginning with a spouse, then children, parents, siblings, and so on down the line of intestate (without a will) succession. New Jersey law establishes who inherits without a will. An estate administrator and, thus, the plaintiff in a wrongful death action is usually a family member, usually a spouse or child.
Who May Recover Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The decedent’s family members may recover damages, typically the named heirs in a will. The spouse and children of the decedent are usually beneficiaries in a will and first in line in intestate succession. Then, parents, siblings, and others close to an unmarried, childless decedent.
What Damages are Recoverable in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Heirs may recover the losses attributable to the death of their family member. A loved one leaves behind family members who once benefitted from the decedent’s guidance, support, companionship, security, and counsel. The monetary value of those services is what the lawsuit recovers. The decedent may also be a source of inheritance, which is also part of the damages. Financial support is also lost with the decedent, such as earnings, past and future. The heirs may also recover the value of services the deceased performed around the house, funeral expenses, hospital bills, or other medical bills after death. Punitive damages may also be recoverable up to the amount allowed by New Jersey law but not loved ones’ mental and emotional suffering. Wrongful death damages are not taxable.
How Does the Money From the Lawsuit Get Divided?
If there is a will, the lawsuit proceeds go to the heirs in the will. If there is no will, the law of intestate succession determines who gets the money. However, a judge determines each heir’s recovery amount, considering age, dependency, and need, among other factors. Minor heirs will have guardians appointed to receive and distribute their share.
If Someone Dies due to Another’s Negligence, When does a Lawsuit have to be Filed With the Court?
Timing can be a legal question, depending on the facts of each case. The statute of limitations is the law that determines the last day on which a representative may file a lawsuit. Typically, it is two years from the date of death.
What is the Role of the Executor or Administrator in a Wrongful Death Action?
The Executor or Administrator is the plaintiff in the lawsuit. They sue for the heirs and take care of all matters concerning the lawsuit, such as answering discovery requests and appearing in court, if necessary. They sign documents and generally take care of the estate and any lawsuits, specifically. For example, they are the ones who can agree to a settlement of the lawsuit, not the heirs. However, they do not distribute a wrongful death lawsuit award. Only a judge can do that.
How long Does a Wrongful Death Case Take From Start to Finish?
There is no specific legal deadline for ending a lawsuit. For example, some wrongful death claims settle before a lawsuit gets filed. Others resolve after a lawsuit is filed, and still, others resolve by a jury at trial. Thus, it can take less than a year or several years.
Should I Get an Attorney if a Family Member Died Due to Someone’s Wrongful Actions?
At a sensitive time of grieving and loss, you want to have the proper counsel and guidance from a compassionate attorney. They can handle the immediate details of getting a court-appointed personal representative to start the lawsuit. They also investigate, if necessary, to confirm the cause of your loved one’s death to name the correct defendants in the suit. Not only do attorneys know the law and how to prove a wrongful death lawsuit, they can guide their client, the personal representative, with advice in settlement and other legal matters regarding the wrongful death lawsuit. Moreover, most wrongful death lawyers work on contingency, which means their fees get paid at the end of the lawsuit with the jury award or settlement proceeds. Most importantly, dedicated lawyers who handle wrongful death litigation regularly understand the pain, confusion, and anger that results from a painful loss due to another’s fault.
Find Out if You Have a Wrongful Death Case. Speak to a New Jersey Attorney Free.
At The Fronzuto Law Group, we have proven experience handling wrongful death cases, while prioritizing the best interests of our clients at all times. If you have any additional questions or want to inquire in a more personalized way about how these questions apply to your case, contact us by calling at 973-435-4551 or toll-free at 888-409-0816 or by completing our online form.