We all pray for our loved ones to live till old age. Unfortunately, life may have other plans. Each passing day, numerous people die due to road accidents, crime, medical malpractice, and defective products.
When a person acts negligently and causes the death of your loved one, you can institute a wrongful death lawsuit against them to recover damages. We at the Jacksonville Personal Injury Attorney understand that no amount of money can compensate for the loss of your loved one. However, money can cushion you from incurring extra financial burdens caused by the death of your loved one. You will also receive closure, and the respondent will be held accountable for his/her negligent or reckless acts.
Before you institute a wrongful death claim in Jacksonville, you must first evaluate whether you have substantial evidence. Read on to know more about how you can build your case.
What is a Wrongful Death Claim?
Essentially, wrongful death claims are civil lawsuits brought by bereaved family members who sue a company or another person so that the court can hold them liable for their loved one's death. Often, the respondents in a wrongful death claim may have acted negligently, and it is their negligent acts that led to the death of the decedent.
According to Florida Statute 768.19, the decedent’s estate can institute a wrongful death claim if the death of the decedent was brought about by negligence. Wrongful death claims are based on proving the elements listed below:
- There was negligent conduct
- This conduct led to the death of the deceased
- Had the deceased not died, he/she would be entitled to institute an action for damages due to such conduct
How Wrongful Death Lawsuits Can Arise
Various situations can bring about wrongful death claims. For example, a person may die in a road accident caused by an individual driving while under the influence of alcohol. Rather, a doctor may prescribe the wrong medication to a patient and cause his/her death. Here are the most common situations that can lead to wrongful death lawsuits:
1. Defective Products
A product may malfunction and cause the death of your loved one. Most manufacturers are fond of cutting corners and designing defective products to make more profits. As per Florida's product liability laws, when a manufacturer distributes unsafe products, mislabels them, or fails to warn the public of the product's potential hazards and the precautions they should take while using them; the manufacturer will be responsible for any loss or harm resulting from the use of the product.
2. Road Accidents
A person may die in a fatal road accident due to the negligence of another person. This road accident could involve a car, bus, truck, motorcycle, or even some pedestrians. The surviving family members can file a wrongful death claim against the person or group who caused the accident. Potential respondents in road accident wrongful death claims include motorists, public service vehicle companies, trucking companies, and government entities.
3. Medical Malpractice
A physician may prescribe the wrong medication, or without consulting if you have any pre-existing conditions that can affect how the drug works. Other doctors may fail to diagnose disorders such as fetal distress, hypertension, and gestational diabetes; and cause birth-related deaths.
Medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuits are based on the fact that the caregiver provided services that are not at par with the standard and degree of care that is reasonably expected of him or her, leading to the death of the deceased. Potential respondents in such lawsuits include doctors, pharmacists, nurses, clinics, dispensaries, and hospitals.
4. Workplace Accidents
Families of individuals who have died due to workplace accidents can institute wrongful death lawsuits for compensation. Most workplace accidents arise because of the negligence of the employer or a co-worker or faulty job equipment. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration asserts, over 18% of workplace deaths take place in the construction industry. The major causes of wrongful deaths in workplaces include falls, getting hit by a dangerous object, electrocutions, or being caught between two different objects.
5. Criminal Acts
Some intentional criminal acts, such as murder, can cause the death of your loved one. Though the potential respondents may face separate criminal charges, you can still institute a wrongful death claim to obtain compensation. It is much easier to prove the respondent’s liability in a wrongful death claim if the jury has already convicted him/her of the offense. However, if the convict doesn’t have enough assets before entering prison, you may be unable to receive compensation.
6. Drowning Accidents
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 3500 people die each year due to drowning accidents. Most of these drowning accidents occur in swimming pools.
Under Florida’s premises liability laws, owners of swimming pools have a duty of care to safeguard individuals who utilize the pool from wrongful deaths or serious injuries. Children are the most common victims of drowning accidents. Owners of swimming pools in Florida should properly fence them to prevent children or mentally incompetent adults from accessing them. If your child died in a drowning accident, you could file a wrongful death lawsuit for damages.
Who Can Institute a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
According to the Florida Wrongful Death Act, it is only the personal representative of the deceased’s estate who has the power to file a wrongful death claim. This personal representative is usually mentioned in the deceased’s will.
If your loved one had not made a will, the court would appoint one of the surviving family members to act as the personal representative. Then, the representative will institute a wrongful death claim on behalf of other family members.
Individuals who qualify to institute wrongful death lawsuits include the deceased person’s spouse, child, parent, and other dependent blood relatives. All these individuals are entitled to recover damages should the claim be successful.
When to File a Wrongful Death Claim
As highlighted by Florida’s Statute of Limitations, you should institute a wrongful death lawsuit within four years from the date when your loved one died. If this period lapses, you may be unable to recover damages. However, this period may be extended under specific circumstances.
You should contact a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible if you believe that your loved one died a wrongful death. This attorney will help you ascertain whether your claim is valid, and institute it within the stipulated time limits.
How to Institute a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
After your attorney has ascertained that your claim is valid and the time limit has not lapsed, you can proceed to institute a wrongful death lawsuit. This process is hectic and tedious, and you cannot succeed without the help of an attorney.
First, you will have to file a complaint at the courthouse. This complaint enlists all the legal and factual grounds of your case. The complaint will be accompanied by a summons – a document that notifies the respondent that he/she has been sued, and specifying the place where the hearing will take place.
As the plaintiff, you will have to exchange all your documents with the respondent after you have filed your complaint. Then, the suit will commence.
Note that drafting, filing, and service of the initial pleadings is just the beginning of your wrongful death lawsuit. The suit can take a couple of years, and it involves other steps that may be challenging for you to implement without an attorney by your side. This is why you must reach out to an experienced wrongful death lawyer for a case evaluation.
What Happens in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
As a non-lawyer, you may have a distorted view of what exactly happens in a wrongful death lawsuit. Maybe most of your knowledge about criminal and civil cases have been derived from watching courtroom dramas on the television. None of these dramatic scenes can give you an accurate depiction of what happens in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Generally, wrongful death claims are long ordeals. Most of them are resolved within one or two years, while others take several years. During all this time, your attorney will be gathering crucial evidence and preparing essential documents to help you win your case. Furthermore, most wrongful death cases never reach the trial phase. The pre-trial stage is the most intensive, and it mainly determines the outcome of your case. Here is a detailed analysis of what happens in a wrongful death lawsuit:
Step 1: Pre-case Investigation
When you hire a wrongful death attorney, he/she will initiate the first step of your case. The attorney will conduct a thorough investigation of all the facts and circumstances of your case. For instance, they may speak to the other surviving family members to know how the respondent caused the decedent's death. They may also assess the value of the potential damages, as well as consult experts such as doctors in claims involving medical malpractice and accident reconstructionists in claims that involve auto accidents. If the respondent is insured, your attorney will request the policy document from the insurance company and evaluate whether the cover applies to your case.
Step 2: Legal Research
Your attorney will consult various case laws that apply to your situation. Case laws are complex, and you may find them difficult to understand as a non-lawyer. It is not just Florida's wrongful death statutes that are relevant in your case. Your lawyer will have to analyze how judges have interpreted these statutes over time and how these interpretations can affect the outcome of your case.
Your attorney will pore through endless legal material to craft for you strong arguments. The respondent can dispute almost every fact in your claim, including whether you are authorized to sue, whether the court has jurisdiction, the elements to prove wrongful death, and the value of damages you deserve. In fact, the primary goal of the respondent’s attorney is to identify a weak spot in the procedural and evidentiary issues of your case to help the client win.
Step 3: Pre-claim Negotiations
Your attorney will send a demand package to the respondent’s insurer if he or she believes that your claim is viable. This commences the pre-claims negotiation process. The insurance company will make a counteroffer to your attorney, and the attorney will either accept or deny it based on its value. If the negotiation fails, your attorney will draft the complaint to file your lawsuit at the courthouse.
Step 4: Filing the Complaint
As asserted earlier, you will institute a lawsuit via filing a complaint. Complaints are formal documents that give an accurate description of your story. Your attorney will serve the complaint to the respondent, and respond within a specified timeframe with an 'answer' or 'motion to dismiss.' In these documents, the respondent will argue their case and explain why they should not be held responsible for the wrongful death.
Step 5: Discovery
Your attorney and the respondent’s attorney will exchange all the crucial evidence before the trial phase. The term 'discovery' refers to the various methods of retrieving evidence, including interrogations, depositions, requests for production of documents, and requests for admissions. Sometimes, the opposing party may object these requests; and your attorney may file 'motions to compel' – a document asking the judge to order the opposing party to produce some crucial evidence.
During the discovery stage, your attorney will craft lengthy documents involving requests and questions per the facts of your case. They will also review all the evidence of the respondent and plan on how to challenge it during the trial.
Step 6: Pre-trial Motions
Attorneys on both sides will make legal arguments about your case to the court. These arguments have a wide scope, and they may cover details of the plaintiff’s complaint or the respondent’s answer, the parties’ evidence, or the fact that one of the parties should win the lawsuit without going through the trial.
Step 7: Settlement Conference
As the case nears trial, the judge may attempt to help both parties reach an agreement via a settlement conference. In some instances, you may be referred to a mediator. The mediator may help both parties to agree on a settlement plan. The major role of a settlement conference is to help parties settle all their differences instead of resorting to costly court battles.
Step 8: Trial
After the members of the jury have been selected, both attorneys will give their opening statements. As the plaintiff, you have the right to begin. Your attorney will present all the relevant evidence and examine your witnesses. The respondent’s attorney may cross-examine your witnesses to discredit your case, as well as present their own witnesses, evidence, and legal arguments. After each party has fully presented their case, both attorneys will make closing statements. Then, the members of the jury will commence their deliberations.
Step 9: Verdict
During the trial, the attorneys may attempt to request the judge to exclude certain evidence, or to issue some jury instructions. The attorneys can also file motions asking the judge to direct the verdict in their favor, based on applicable case law and statutes. All these activities are usually done in the background, without the jury's presence, but they largely contribute to the outcome of the case.
Juries are unpredictable, and they mostly decide the case’s outcome based on their personal biases and beliefs. Any party that is aggrieved by the jury’s verdict has the right to appeal.
Step 10: Appeal
Either party may institute an appeal, depending on the outcome of the trial within thirty days from the date when the jury issued its verdict. If this period lapses, the court will implement the jury’s verdict.
Step 11: Collection of Damages
If the verdict is in favor of the plaintiff, he or she will collect damages from the respondent. Sometimes, the respondent may fail to implement the court's judgment and still refuse to compensate the plaintiff. In such cases, the authorities will permit the plaintiff to seize and sell the assets of the respondent to obtain compensation.
Proving Liability in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
As the plaintiff, you must prove that the respondent caused the death of your loved one by acting negligently for the court to hold him/her liable. For you to successfully demonstrate the respondent's negligence, you must assert that he or she had a duty of care, he/she breached this duty of care, and this breach led to your loved one's death.
Duty of Care
The respondent should have owed the decedent 'duty of care.' This means that the respondent had a legal obligation to protect your loved one from harm. For instance, if your spouse died in an auto accident caused by a dangerous road, you can assert that the government had a duty of care to keep your spouse safe by maintaining roads in good condition.
The respondent can argue that they didn't owe your loved one 'duty of care.' In such situations, the jury will have to decide whether the respondent had a duty of care. The jury will consider several factors before making a decision, including public policy, how the harm occurred, its predictability, and how the respondent’s actions were connected to the harm.
Breach of Duty of Care
After the plaintiff has proved that the respondent owed his/her loved one a duty of care, they must illustrate how the respondent breached it. The plaintiff will be required to provide sufficient evidence to show the court that the respondent failed to act reasonably to protect the plaintiff’s loved one from harm.
The Breach of Duty of Care Caused the Death of the Decedent
The plaintiff must prove that his/her loved one died because the respondent breached their duty of care. Though this may seem to be straightforward, it can be rather challenging to prove; especially in auto accidents and medical malpractice cases where your loved one may have gotten a long term illness as a result of the respondent’s negligence and died because of it.
Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Some examples of available damages in a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- Funeral and medical expenses related to the death
- Wages the victim would have earned had he or she survived
- Punitive damages
- Loss of benefits such as medical coverage and pension plans
- Loss of companionship, care, nurturing, and protection
- Loss of inheritance
- Pain and suffering or mental anguish of the surviving family members
Calculating the Value of Wrongful Death Damages
The jury will take into consideration various factors when assessing the value of potential damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. Some of these factors include the person who died, his/her character, earning history, and health.
The jury may also consider how your loved one handled money, such as whether he/she saved, squandered, or gambled it. A family whose loved one wasted a major part of his/her income may receive less compensation compared to a family whose loved one saved or invested most of his/her earnings.
Calculating the value of wrongful death damages can be quite complicated. Often, your attorney may bring in expert witnesses like economists to discuss their opinion about the right amount of damages, considering that the jury will have to compute costs that equate to companionship, care, nurturing, and pain and suffering.
As the plaintiff, you can also recover the interest that may have accrued from these damages from the time when your loved one died. Furthermore, the court can award you punitive damages if you illustrate that the respondent’s actions were malicious or intentional. Punitive damages are meant to punish the respondent, and they may be up to three times the total value of both the general and special damages.
Find a Personal Injury Attorney Near Me
Here at the Jacksonville Personal Injury Attorney, we understand the pain and suffering you experience after the tragic death of your loved one. That’s why we are willing to help you. If your loved one died in Jacksonville due to the negligent acts of another person, do not hesitate to reach out to us. We will fight to ensure you receive fair compensation. Call us today at 904-800-7557.