What Is Wrongful Death?

HutzlerLaw July 22, 2022

A car comes careening through an intersection, and they hit another car head-on. The driver loses their life. A gunshot rings out at a park, a bullet strikes a woman reading a book and kills her. A robber mugs a person walking through a parking garage. The mugger throws them to the ground, and they strike their head on a car bumper. The blow to the head kills the victim.

These are examples of wrongful death.

This type of loss of life is challenging for everyone in the family. Losing a loved one is never easy, and when a family member learns someone could have prevented the death of their loved one, it hurts even more. Families have options to help hold the responsible party accountable.

Legal and Illegal Actions Can Result in Wrongful Death

Everyone should understand that not only illegal actions result in wrongful death. In some cases, someone may have taken legal action, but because they were negligent while taking that action, someone lost their life.

An example of this might be that a store owner had their floor washed and waxed. Before the floor dried, customers came into the store. The person performing the washing and waxing failed to put up a proper warning sign warning patrons the floor was slippery. This is a negligent action. If a person slips and falls on the floor and, as a result, they lose their life because of their injury, there is no illegal action. However, there is a negligent action that costs someone their life.

You may file a wrongful death lawsuit without prosecutors filing criminal charges. Wrongful death actions are considered civil and not criminal. They carry a lesser burden of proof for the party who files the suit. Everyone understands that when an accident occurs that results in an injury, the responsible party can be held accountable for the accident. The same happens when someone loses their life due to irresponsible or negligent conduct.

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Types of Accidents That Result in Wrongful Death

Whenever someone loses their life, someone wants someone to blame. Most of us understand a natural death, for example, a heart attack, stroke, or cancer. However, we often have difficulty accepting a sudden death caused by something neither the victim nor their family considered.

Some of the accidents which can result in death include:

  • Roadway Accidents – In one recent year, according to data offered by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), 970 accidents were fatal, resulting in 1,057 people losing their lives. The crash data shows us 181 car accident deaths related to alcohol while another 337 resulted from speed.
  • Swimming Pool Accidents – Approximately 30 percent of all homes in Phoenix have a swimming pool. If the property owner fails to maintain their fence and a child enters the yard and drowns in their pool, the parents can hold the pool owner liable for a wrongful death.
  • Trip and Fall Accidents – Someone visiting a doctor’s office or other office building may opt to use the stairs versus an elevator. A loose step, a broken handrail, or frayed carpeting could result in them falling down a flight of stairs.

These are only a few accidents that could lead to someone losing their life and leaving a family behind to pick up the pieces. While money will never take the place of a loved one in their life, what it can do is allow them to maintain some degree of financial security.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

In Arizona, plaintiffs must file wrongful death lawsuits through the civil court system. Often, the decedent’s executor of their estate files these cases for the surviving family members or the estate. While this may be common practice, it is not necessary.

Others who may file a wrongful death suit include:

  • Surviving spouse – The surviving spouse may file a wrongful death claim in Arizona’s civil courts. Generally, when a death is unexpected, the spouse may contact a wrongful death lawyer because, more often than not, they are the personal representative or the executor of the decedent’s estate.
  • Surviving children – If a decedent is a widow, single, or divorced, if they had surviving children, then any child may file a wrongful death suit.
  • Parent or guardian – For a decedent with no children, or when the decedent was a child, the surviving parent or guardian may file a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

These are the only parties eligible to file a wrongful death claim in Arizona. As you can see, this is very limited in scope.

Damages You May Include in Wrongful Death Claims

We can divide wrongful death claims into two separate claims. The first part of the claim pertains to the decedent. The claim may include economic losses like medical bills for treatment before death, funeral and burial expenses, property damaged in the incident, and income lost between the incident and the death. You may also include non-economic losses such as pain and suffering.

The second part of the case is a survivor’s claim. This also includes economic and non-economic losses. Families who have lost a loved one also lose the benefit of their future earnings. Therefore, economic losses are part of the decedent’s estate. The claim may include additional non-economic losses for loss of companionship, loss of household services, and survivor’s mental pain and suffering from the loss.

Any case involving wrongful death is complicated, so it is advisable to seek guidance from an experienced civil lawyer who has experience handling wrongful death claims. An experienced attorney can help involve those experts who can help them determine an accurate, fair claim amount so that your family can move toward a financial future that the wrongful death does not ruin.=

Establishing Liability for Wrongful Death Claims

As with any civil liability claim, there has to be a demonstration that the person who caused the incident, which resulted in death, had liability for the death.

Let’s look at a couple of potential scenarios:

  • Big truck and car accident on the road – A tractor-trailer is traveling on a multi-lane highway, and the car to their right suddenly cuts in front of them. The trucker needs to move out of the way to avoid striking the car in the rear end. The trucker checks his mirrors, sees no one in the way, turns on the blinker, and moves over one lane. Unfortunately, your loved one has been traveling in their blind spot, and when the trucker moves over, they strike the car, which is thrown to the side of the road violently, and your loved one dies instantly. In this scenario, the trucker is partially at fault because they failed to properly assess the risk and remained unaware of the car in its blind spot. However, the car that cut in front of the truck is liable. Therefore, a wrongful death lawsuit would involve both parties.
  • Car-on-car accident – A drunk driver runs a red light and sideswipes a car coming through the green light. The drunk driver is at fault for this accident, and if a passenger or driver in the car lost their life due to the accident, then the drunk driver will be facing charges for driving under the influence. The prosecutor may also opt to press criminal charges against the driver who was intoxicated.

As you can see, there are two accidents on the roadway, both with different scenarios, but both with fatal results. The drunk driving scenario is far less complicated, but that does not mean the insurance company will agree to pay a claim.

Insurance Company Adjusters and Wrongful Death Claims

Assuming that many wrongful death claims result from vehicle accidents, there are some things that every family member who has lost a loved one needs to know about dealing with insurance company adjusters. Remember, every driver on Arizona roadways is required to have a minimum amount of auto insurance coverage.

When someone has lost their life, these policies may be inadequate to reimburse a family for the losses associated with the decedent’s medical, funeral, and burial expenses. Before accessing the benefits from an insurance policy of the party who caused the accident, you must file a claim. After that, the insurance company will assign an adjuster to the claim. The adjuster has one job—ensuring the insurance company pays as little as possible. While this may seem unfair, it is a fact.

Insurance adjusters will do anything possible to minimize a wrongful death claim, just like any other accident claim.

Some of the issues a family may have to deal with include:

  • Blaming the victim – An adjuster may claim their client did not cause the accident. However, police reports and other evidence can quickly dispel this claim. Your wrongful death attorney can help put this matter to bed immediately.
  • Blaming a third party – When a roadway accident involves multiple parties, it may be difficult to establish who is primarily at fault for the fatality. However, police reports, witness statements, and other evidence can help determine specific fault. There may ultimately be more than one party at fault for any accident.

Dealing with insurance companies can be frustrating and complicated. It is often difficult to negotiate with an adjuster when a simple car accident involves minor injuries and damages. They are far more complicated when someone involved in the accident loses their life.

Why Hire an Attorney for Wrongful Death Claims?

These claims are very complicated, and it is often best to have representation from an attorney who understands personal injury law and the statutes governing wrongful death. Unlike some regular accident cases, these cases are more likely to require a court date.

An attorney will prepare for court even if the case ultimately settles outside of court. There is no charge or strings attached to requesting a free consultation from an attorney who can help you learn about your legal rights.

Arizona statutes also impose time limits. Victims’ families have only two years from the date of death to file a wrongful death claim. When insurance companies are aware that you have not hired an attorney to represent you, they may stall and drag their feet until the statutes of limitations expire, which would prevent a family from being able to file a claim.

If you lost a loved one because another person or party acted irresponsibly, this may make the death wrongful. Your family representative should contact an experienced wrongful death attorney to schedule a free consultation. Do not wait too long. While healing from your loss, your attorney can handle claims and file a lawsuit when needed.