Wrongful Death Lawsuits Overview
UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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A wrongful death lawsuit involves the death of a person that is caused by the negligence or malicious action of another person or from some kind of strict liability, such as the liability for faulty products. Wrongful death lawsuits can be complicated or straightforward, and it’s difficult to predict how long it will take to resolve such a lawsuit.
Contacting a Wrongful Death Attorney
If you think you might have a wrongful death claim, the first thing you should do is to contact an experienced wrongful death lawyer. The attorney will evaluate your case, and if you have a good claim, he or she may represent you.
Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
At first, your attorney may try to settle the case by demanding damages from the defendants. If the case is not settled at this point, the next step is to file a document called a complaint with a court to begin a wrongful death lawsuit.
The person filing the suit is called the plaintiff. The person being sued is called the defendant. The complaint states the reasons why the plaintiff is suing the defendant, the law that supports the plaintiff’s claims and what the plaintiff is demanding by way of damages (compensation). A third party serves the complaint on the defendant (or all defendants if there is more than one).
The defendants have a specified time to reply to the complaint, such as 20 to 30 days. This reply is usually called an answer. The answer typically outlines the defendant’s defenses to the plaintiff’s claims and seeks to have the plaintiff’s case dismissed.
After the lawsuit has been filed, both the plaintiff and defendant have an opportunity to obtain information from each other about the case. This part is called “discovery.” Discovery can take the form of written questions, a deposition (interview) in front of a court reporter, and/or requests for relevant documents and items.
Wrongful Death Pre-trial Motions
Before the case is set for trial, attorneys for either side may make legal arguments about the case to the court, which usually take the form of legal motions. These arguments might concern details about the complaint or answer, disputes about getting evidence, or an argument that one party is entitled to win the case without a trial.
Wrongful Death Settlement
As a case is nearing the time for trial, many states or courts insist that the attorneys meet with a judge for a settlement conference where the judge tries to help the parties work out a settlement. In some places, the parties are referred to mediation before a case can be set for trial, usually to encourage parties to settle their differences rather than resort to a costly court battle.
Wrongful Death Trial
A lawsuit will be set for trial before a judge or jury (the plaintiff gets to decide) if the parties are not able to settle out of court. During the trial, parties will present witnesses, cross-examine opposing witnesses, present evidence, and make legal and evidentiary arguments. At the end of this process, the judge or jury will enter a verdict for the plaintiff or defendant. If the verdict is for the plaintiff, the judge or jury will also decide on the amount of damages.
Arbitration is an alternative to court trials. It is similar to formal litigation, but instead of a judge and jury there is an arbitrator or a panel of arbitrators. If the arbitration is binding, the decision of the arbitrator or panel is as final as the verdict of a court.
Wrongful Death Appeal
Either of the parties can appeal (have the case looked at again by another court) if there was a significant legal error in the trial.
Wrongful Death Collection
A lawsuit is finished when an appeal is completed or a verdict entered and the time for appeal has run out. At that point, the plaintiff still has to collect the damages that have been awarded from the defendants. If defendants don’t pay the damages awarded by the court, states have procedures that allow the plaintiff to find out where the defendant’s assets are located and to collect as much of the damage award as possible.
Click the following articles for more information about wrongful death, filing a wrongful death lawsuit and finding an experienced wrongful death attorney.
- For more information about who may file a wrongful death lawsuit, see Who May Sue for Wrongful Death?
- To find out more about damages in a wrongful death lawsuit, see Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit.
- For more information about the statute of limitations for bringing a wrongful death action, see Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim.
- For more information about medical privacy concerns in wrongful death cases, see Wrongful Death and the Physician-Patient Privilege.
- To learn more about wrongful death attorneys and how to find one, see How a Wrongful Death Lawyer Can Help You.