The death of a loved one is a truly traumatic experience, especially if that death was sudden and unexpected . The sudden loss of a loved one leaves families with emotional burdens and oftentimes financial ones. So what happens when the death of a loved one is the result of someone else’s accident? This is known in the legal world as a “wrongful death” and you may be entitled to compensation. In Massachusetts, in the event of a wrongful death, the family of a loved one “steps into their shoes” and collects compensation on behalf of the deceased. Those who have lost a loved one due to wrongful death may be eligible to receive compensation for medical costs, funeral costs, loss of income, and other expenses.
Massachusetts law states that a person or company may be liable for wrongful death if that death was caused by: 1) negligence (failing to exercise reasonable care); 2) a “wanton or reckless act,” or 3) a breach of warranty. In all three cases, a wrongful death claim may be filed if the deceased person could have filed a personal injury lawsuit based on the same incident, had he or she survived.
What this means, functionally, is that a wrongful death claim is similar to a standard personal injury claim. In both cases, the action or inaction of one party is the cause of the injury or death of another. Obviously, in a wrongful death case, the injured person is unable to sue the liable party. Rather, another party must bring the claim on behalf of the deceased person.
What are common instances where a wrongful death occurs?
Certainly not an exhaustive list, but common examples include:
- Fatal Auto accidents
- Work site accidents
- Slip-and-fall accidents
- Medical malpractice and misdiagnosis
- Animal attacks, e.g. dogs
- Nursing home abuse or neglect
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
In order to file the wrongful death claim in court, you must be the executor or administrator of the deceased party’s estate. Any damages recovered from the claim are paid to the deceased person’s estate.
What Type of Compensation is Available in a Wrongful Death Case?
Because, in the context we are discussing, a wrongful death claim is a civil action (though not discussed herein, a criminal case may also be occurring simultaneously), the sole compensation is in the form of monetary damages.
Pursuant to Massachusetts law, damages available compensate for:
- the fair monetary value of the deceased could reasonably be expected to have earned in his or her lifetime, “including but not limited to compensation for the loss of the reasonably expected net income, services, protection, care, assistance, society, companionship, comfort, guidance, counsel, and advice of the decedent to the persons entitled to the damages recovered;”
- reasonable funeral and burial expenses for the deceased party; and
- punitive damages.
A quick note about punitive damages. Their intent is to punish the person responsible for the wrongful death; thus, are not related to the reasonable expected future income of the deceased. Further, they are only awarded if a court finds the death was caused by “malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct” or gross negligence by the defendant. Punitive damages are at least $5,000, though can be higher-to-significantly-higher depending on the facts of the case and the degree of “malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct” by the responsible party. Simply put, they are intended to punish the responsible party.
How much time do I have to file a wrongful death lawsuit?
A final thing to remember is the timeline for filing these claims. The statute of limitations, i.e., the deadline to file a lawsuit, is three (3) years of the date of death or of the date the executor first knew or should have known a wrongful death claim was available.