The wrongful death statute of limitations differs from state to state. Usually, it is a couple of years. This means you have a short window in which to take legal action against whoever caused or contributed to your loved one’s passing. If you miss this deadline, you may jeopardize your right to recover compensation consult with a wrongful death attorney.
How Does the Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations Work?
The statute of limitations restricts how much time a person has to take legal action after suffering injuries or losing a loved one in an accident.
The length of time allotted by this law may depend on:
- Where you live: Each state has its own rules regarding these statutes. You can look up your state’s laws yourself, but a wrongful death attorney can help you better understand their nuances.
- Who caused the death: Sometimes, the law gives you less time to sue a certain type of liable party (e.g., a local government) than other types (e.g., a driver or a property owner).
- How the death occurred: Some states alter the statute of limitations depending on the type of accident your loved one suffered. The family of a nursing home abuse victim, for instance, may have less time to file than the family of a workplace accident victim.
With that, the wrongful death statute of limitations generally works this way:
- Starting from the day your loved one passed away, you have a limited amount of time to sue the person or organization responsible for their death.
- You must begin any such legal action within the period allotted by state law.
- You do not have to complete the legal action within the statute of limitations—in fact, many cases can take years to resolve. As long as you start your lawsuit within the statute of limitations, you have generally complied with the law.
- If you choose not to file your case within the applicable statute, the courts take this as a sign that you have chosen to forfeit your right to legal action. You can neither take action nor receive compensation for this accident in the future.
Depending on the facts of your case, you may qualify for an exception to this final rule. For example, the court may extend the statute if you had a very good reason for not filing promptly. However, it is better not to depend on potential exemptions: you can protect your rights more effectively by consulting an attorney.
Filing a Wrongful Death Case Within the Deadline
There are several steps you can take if you want to protect your right to compensation. These include the following:
Hiring a Wrongful Death Attorney
The law is often far too complicated for a layperson to navigate alone, especially if they are grieving a loved one’s demise or even dealing with injuries of their own.
To protect your rights, you can hire a lawyer to:
- Explain your options for compensation
- Take care of all legal tasks associated with your lawsuit while you spend time grieving with loved ones and deciding on a new direction for your life
- Answer your legal questions and keep you updated about your case’s progress
- Speak on your behalf to insurance companies, the liable party, and all other involved parties
Considering Your Options
Given that you have a limited time to file a lawsuit, it may seem counterintuitive to wait before getting started. However, you should not be too hasty when making such an important decision.
Take a little time to:
- Discuss the case with your lawyer and ask any questions you may have
- Talk things over with your family and ask for their opinions
- Research wrongful death cases similar to yours, as it can inform you about what questions you ask your lawyer
- Recover as well as you can from the initial shock of your loved one’s death so you can make better, more clear-headed legal decisions with your lawyer’s help
You have some time before the statute of limitations runs out. This gives you a critical opportunity to weigh your options and decide on a course of action you feel comfortable with.
Investigating the Case
If you decide to move ahead with a lawsuit, your wrongful death lawyer can learn everything they can about the fatal incident.
This process involves collecting evidence of the connections between:
- The liable party’s actions and the fatal accident
- The fatal accident and your loved one’s passing
- Everything you have lost and the amount of compensation you ask for
Available evidence differs depending on the type of accident your loved one suffered, as well as the circumstances specific to that accident.
Fighting for Compensation
Once you complete all of the above tasks, you and your lawyer can finally implement your plan to recover the compensation you need and deserve.
You usually have two main options for seeking damages.
The first is to have your attorney negotiate directly with the other party’s insurance company by:
- Meeting with them as many times as necessary
- Showing the evidence they collected during the investigation phase if strong enough, it should prove to the insurer that they have a legal obligation to pay out
- Letting you know whenever the insurer makes a settlement offer and whether or you should take that offer
Negotiations are often the preferred method for receiving compensation: they can be faster, less stressful, and cheaper for all involved. However, negotiations are not a viable option in all cases.
You could instead take your case to trial, where your lawyer would:
- Argue for your right to compensation in front of a judge and/or jury
- Object when and if the liable party’s team tries to violate your rights or ignore courtroom procedure
- Show evidence and explain how it proves you deserve damages
Both negotiations and courtroom trials have their pros and cons. Your lawyer can tell you more about each option and advise you as to which route to take.
When to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
So long as you start your case within the statute of limitations, you may sue any party who caused or contributed to the fatal accident.
This right applies after any accident, including but not limited to:
- Truck accidents
- Car accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Workplace accidents
- Premises liability accidents (e.g., slips and falls, swimming pool accidents)
- Medical malpractice
- Nursing home abuse
The laws including the statute of limitations relating to each of these kinds of accidents may differ from state to state or even from situation to situation. You can speak to a wrongful death attorney to learn more about how your state’s laws apply to your case.
Who May I Hold Responsible for Wrongful Death?
The short answer is that you can sue any party whose negligence or recklessness facilitated your loved one’s demise as long as you can prove that:
- The liable party had a duty to behave in a way that any reasonable person would consider safe and competent.
- The liable party did not behave in a safe, competent manner.
- The liable party’s behavior cost your loved one their life.
A few examples of potential responsible parties include:
- A doctor who ignores a patient’s symptoms and does not order appropriate diagnostic tests until too late
- A drunk driver who speeds through a red light and hits another car
- A property owner who leaves loose wiring lying across busy walkways, creating a tripping hazard
- An employer who does not adequately train their employees to handle the equipment they have to use regularly
Finding the Right Negligent Party
You may or may not have an idea of who bears responsibility for your loved one’s death. You do not have to worry about answering this critical question alone.
An attorney can find the answers you need by collecting evidence, such as:
- Witness statements
- Your statement
- The official police report
- Photos or video from the accident scene
While many people only sue one party, some can sue two or more liable parties. A wrongful death lawyer can work quickly to identify all of the liable parties in your case before the statute of limitations runs out.
Compensation You May Recover in a Wrongful Death Case
Those who file their cases within the relevant statute of limitations can ask for many different types of compensation. This includes money for:
Your Loved One’s Suffering
Whether your loved one died instantly or survived for a while after the accident, they could have:
- Endured physical pain
- Experienced emotional suffering, including fear at the time of the accident
One important note: you may not sue for any damages that your loved one already sought. For example, if they filed and completed a personal injury lawsuit, you cannot ask for compensation for those items.
If your loved one passed away while their legal action was still in progress, you could potentially “convert” their personal injury action into a wrongful death action and continue fighting on their behalf.
Losing a loved one especially in such an unexpected, sudden, and preventable fashion is utterly devastating.
- Experience deep grief and shock related to their passing
- Have to raise the deceased’s children without the benefit of the deceased’s emotional support and guidance
- Have to learn how to live without your loved one’s daily presence and companionship
Each of these items could qualify you for compensation. It can be difficult to assign an appropriate amount of money to such intangible losses as grief but it is far from impossible. You can talk to your lawyer for more information.
Your Financial Suffering
A loved one’s passing can also affect you financially.
While money might be the last thing on your mind right now, you will eventually have to contend with:
- The cost of burying your loved one and holding a funeral service
- The cost of settling your loved one’s estate, especially if they died intestate or if there is some dispute over their final wishes
- The loss of the income your loved one contributed to the family and put towards paying rent or saving for your children’s education
- The loss of crucial benefits from your loved one’s job, such as the health insurance you used to pay for routine medical treatments
- The medical expenses for the ambulance ride, surgeries, medications, diagnostic tests, or hospital stays your loved one underwent
Had the liable party not behaved so recklessly, you would not have to worry about paying for any of these items. They should therefore reimburse you for these additional expenses.
Other Reasons to File a Wrongful Death Case Quickly
In addition to worrying about the statute of limitations, remember:
- Human memory is fallible. The more time passes between the accident and when you call on a witness to testify, the less they may accurately remember.
- Physical or digital evidence does not last forever. The police may misplace records, and camera owners may delete photos or video.
- You deserve closure after a loved one’s wrongful death. Completing a lawsuit against the liable party could provide that closure.
Again, it is important that you carefully consider your options before jumping into a lawsuit. Prompt action is certainly important, but it is just as important to go into the legal process with a solid idea of what to expect.
Start Your Wrongful Death Case Today
A wrongful death attorney understands the pain of losing a loved one, especially when their passing should never have happened. They can work within the wrongful death statute of limitations to recover fair compensation through settlement negotiations or, if necessary, court.