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What Is a Wrongful Death Case?

Father Hugging Children after Wrongful Death of Family Member

In personal injury law, there is a special type of lawsuit referred to as a wrongful death case. This type of action is governed by a specific state law in Virginia. But exactly what is a wrongful death case?

When Is a Death Considered To Be Wrongful?

Many states have specific laws concerning wrongful death actions. The laws vary from state to state. In Virginia, our statute provides that if a person, corporation or ship or vessel causes someone's death, the estate of the deceased person can file a wrongful death lawsuit if:

  • Death was caused by a wrongful act, negligence, or default, and
  • The injured person would have been able to bring a lawsuit for damages if he or she had not died.

While wrongful death cases often result from car accidents, an action can arise in many other circumstances, including:

In all of these cases, the two criteria noted above must be met for a wrongful death action to be available. There are other situations where the basis for a wrongful death case may exist as well.

What Is the Difference Between Criminal Conduct and Wrongful Death?

There are many circumstances under which specific conduct can lead to a criminal charge and also provide the basis for a wrongful death case. In those cases, the individual charged with the crime does not have to be found guilty of the crime in order to be liable for damages in a wrongful death case.

Criminal charges are based on different laws than wrongful death cases. A prosecutor for the state files criminal charges, which are tried in criminal court. Wrongful death lawsuits are filed under the wrongful death law. They are civil cases, brought by the estate of the deceased person and tried in civil court. The courts are different, the laws are different, and the standards of proof are different. The evidence presented in the two cases can also be substantially different.

The potential outcomes are also different in criminal and civil cases. In a criminal case, a convicted defendant faces possible prison time and fines. In a successful civil case, the outcome is financial compensation — or damages — awarded to the person who files the lawsuit.

An excellent example of this type of situation is the famous case of O.J. Simpson, who was charged with crimes in connection with the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. A jury in criminal court found him not guilty of those criminal charges.

After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the criminal charges, the family of Ron Goldman filed a wrongful death action against him in civil court. In the civil case, the jury found O.J. Simpson legally responsible for the deaths. He was ordered by the court to pay total damages of $33.5 million to the families of his two victims. While the damages still have not been paid, the verdict in the wrongful death case stands today.

The results in the criminal and civil trials relating to O.J. Simpson’s conduct illustrate how a wrongful death action can lead to an award of compensation for a family on account of someone's actions, even when the same person was acquitted of criminal charges. The cases demonstrate how civil liability in a wrongful death case is determined completely independent of the results in a criminal trial based on the same conduct.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Action?

Under the Virginia statute, the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate is the only person who can file a wrongful death action. (The only exception is in the case of a fetal death, when the natural mother can file the action.) However, if the case is settled or won in court, the financial compensation is distributed to the beneficiaries of the deceased person, as specified in the statute, after estate expenses are paid.

Determining whether a wrongful death action can be filed in specific circumstances requires complicated analysis of the evidence surrounding the death. If you’ve lost a loved one in any kind of accident or incident, and you think someone else is at fault, it’s essential for you to talk with an experienced wrongful death attorney. Your lawyer will be able to assess the circumstances to determine whether a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed.

Importantly, there is a limit on how long the family has to file a wrongful death case. In Virginia, the action must be filed within two years of the date of death. If you wait beyond that amount of time, you will be unable to pursue a wrongful death claim.

Car Accident Wrongful Death: What Happens If a Passenger Dies?

When a wrongful death results from a car accident, often the at-fault driver was operating the other vehicle involved in the accident. But what happens if the person at fault was driving the car in which a passenger was riding?

The Virginia Wrongful Death Act has a specific provision that applies. It states that if a person riding in a motor vehicle as a guest dies as the result of negligent operation of the vehicle, the personal representative of the deceased person can file a wrongful death action against the driver.

Passenger situations can be extremely difficult and emotional. Often, the driver of the car is a family member or friend. In those cases, the family of the deceased passenger may be reluctant to file a wrongful death claim against the friend or other family member. It’s important to remember that in those cases, it is the insurance company who will pay the claim, not the individual himself or herself. While that still makes the situation difficult, talking with an experienced wrongful death attorney in those circumstances will be beneficial.

Damages in a Wrongful Death Case

Financial compensation in a wrongful death action is very different from the compensation that can be recovered in a personal injury lawsuit brought by the injured person. In a wrongful death case, damages include losses suffered by the family members who are entitled to sue under the state law.

A complete explanation of damages in wrongful death cases is provided in our blog article, Damages in Wrongful Death Lawsuits.

Talk With a Trusted Virginia Beach Wrongful Death Attorney

If you’ve lost a loved one in circumstances that may be someone else’s fault, Virginia Beach wrongful death attorney Jeff Brooke is here to help you and your family. The Jeff Brooke Team will help you understand your family’s rights under the wrongful death statute. We will always protect your family’s interests and safeguard your rights. Contact us by phone at (757) 552-6055 or by using our online contact form.

Jeff Brooke is a personal injury attorney devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious and catastrophic injuries or lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligent and careless actions. The Jeff Brooke Team serves all of southeastern Virginia. The firm helps clients in the Greater Tidewater and Greater Hampton Roads areas, including in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Chesterfield. The Jeff Brooke Team also handles cases in northeastern North Carolina, including the Outer Banks.

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