The success of a wrongful death claim depends on whether a plaintiff can provide evidence proving that another party's negligence or recklessness caused a relative's death. This requires demonstrating that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care to behave reasonably;
- The defendant breached his or her duty of care by failing to behave reasonably;
- The breach caused the death of the decedent; and
- The defendant’s death caused damages to her or his surviving family members.
Although there are countless ways that another person’s negligence can cause or contribute to an accident, most wrongful death claims involve one of the following situations:
- An automobile or truck collision where the other driver failed to obey traffic laws or drove in a reckless or negligent manner
- A defectively designed or manufactured product that causes injuries when used as it was intended
- Medical malpractice resulting from a medical professional's failure to conform to the standard of care
- Only certain individuals can recover damages for a wrongful death claim on behalf of the deceased. Eligible persons include:
- The surviving spouse or children of the deceased
- The grandchildren of the deceased, if there is no surviving spouse or child
- The parents or siblings of the deceased, if the decedent had no surviving spouse, children, or grandchildren
- Any other relative who was primarily dependent on the decedent and a member of the same household, if there are no other surviving relatives
- Any of the decedent’s surviving family members entitled to inherit under the state’s intestacy laws, if none of the above individuals exist
When plaintiffs can demonstrate that someone else’s negligence caused the death of their relative, they may be able to collect compensatory damages for:
- Loss of companionship;
- Lost wages;
- Medical bills related to the decedent's injury or illness; and
- Funeral expenses.
In cases where the defendant showed a conscious and reckless disregard for others, a jury may be willing to award punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant and act as a deterrent to similar behavior in the future. It’s important to keep in mind that in Virginia, a person’s beneficiary only has two years from the date of death to file a wrongful death claim. Failing to do so will result in the claim being barred by the court.
Calculating Pecuniary Loss
Although determining the amount of money spent on medical bills and burial costs is relatively straightforward, it can be much more complicated to demonstrate loss of income. This calculation requires considering how much a person would have made if he or she hadn’t passed away. In many cases, determining how much the deceased could have contributed to the household necessitates an economist’s analysis of a series of factors, including the decedent’s:
- Health and physical condition;
- Life expectancy;
- Earning capacity; and
- Financial circumstances at the time of the accident.
The testimony of these experts is essential in cases where a person did not earn a paycheck. For instance, homemakers have no permanent income, but an economist may be able to show that, although a family has technically not lost any income, it will now have to spend more money to provide certain services, such as childcare, transportation, and cleaning.
Calculating pecuniary loss can also be difficult when the deceased individual was either a child or an elderly person. Unlike middle-aged or young adults—individuals whose financial contribution can be calculated with relative ease by analyzing pay stubs and banking statements—an elderly person may be retired and no longer bringing in additional funds. Similarly, a child is not employed and does not contribute financially to a household. In such cases, wrongful death lawsuits may take into consideration other elements of a person's relationship to his or her family when calculating loss. For instance, a jury may award damages based on potential child-rearing, nurturing, and companionship when evaluating damages.
In most wrongful death cases, juries are given the discretion to determine how much a victim’s family will receive in damages. However, if a court disagrees with the amount or a jury is unable to come to an agreement, the court can adjust the award or order a new trial.
Contact a Dedicated Petersburg Wrongful Death Attorney Today
There is nothing more tragic than losing a loved one unexpectedly in an accident. Although winning damages in a wrongful death case pales in comparison to the loss suffered by a grieving family, it can help to keep the deceased’s family out of debt. Filing a wrongful death claim can be an emotional process, requiring family members to relive some of the most traumatic moments in their lives. During these times, it is necessary to have the advice of an experienced attorney who can offer guidance and legal support. If you recently lost a loved one in an accident, please contact Emroch & Kilduff to speak with an experienced wrongful death attorney. To schedule a free consultation in person, feel free to stop by our Petersburg office. A member of our legal team can also be reached via live chat.