Statute of Limitations in a Wrongful Death Case

When someone else was to blame for the death of your family member, one of your first thoughts turns to justice in the form of financial compensation. Still, pursuing the legal process may not be easy when your family is dealing with their grief. However, state law will force you to deal with a claim or court case sooner rather than later if you want financial compensation. You should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer today to begin the legal process.

You Have Limited Time to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Tatiana Boohoff Lawyer
Tatiana Boohoff Wrongful Death Lawyer

You do not have unlimited time to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party. In every state, there is a time cap on your period to legally act to obtain financial compensation. The statute of limitations is exactly that – it is a law that limits your ability to file a lawsuit. So long as the statute of limitations has not tolled, you have a full right to file a lawsuit against the defendant.

The legal system tries to balance the interests of the plaintiff and the defendant and consider how to be fundamentally fair to both. A defendant has their own legal rights in a personal injury case.

There Are Policy Reasons for a Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations tries to be fair to the defendant by keeping them from answering for an unlimited time for alleged conduct. It is difficult for defendants to live or run a business, knowing that they might face a lawsuit at any point in time for conduct that occurred a long time ago.

The defendant has to build their own case in court, and they may lose access to the evidence they may need for trial as time passes. With the statute of limitations, defendants usually have an idea of when someone may sue them and who will file the wrongful death claim, enabling them to maintain access to evidence they may need at trial. Otherwise, it might be nearly impossible for the defendant to counter the plaintiff’s evidence.

A Court Cannot Hear a Case if There Is No Jurisdiction

The statute of limitations is a matter of jurisdiction. The court only has jurisdiction to entertain your case for a certain period. After that, your legal rights expire, so to speak, and the court cannot hear the case even if it wants to. The statute of limitations is a threshold issue and a case of jurisdiction. The defendant will attempt to argue that the court cannot hear the case at all because it lacks jurisdiction after enough time elapses.

The defendant will file a motion to dismiss the case, just like they might if the court lacked personal or subject matter jurisdiction. The court will hear the motion to dismiss at a relatively early stage in the case before you get into the discovery process or the case goes any further.

If the court finds that you missed the statute of limitations, it will dismiss the case entirely because it cannot legally hear it. The court will not proceed to consider the merits of your case. If the court dismisses the case because of the statute of limitations, you need to file an appeal to try to keep the case alive. If the appeals court overrules the trial court, the case will then be remanded for a trial on its merits.

The Statute of Limitations Is a Strict Deadline

In most states, the statute of limitations in a personal injury case is two or three years. Wrongful death cases are a form of personal injury claims brought by the family in the wake of the death of a loved one.

The statute of limitations is a hard and fast deadline. There is no leeway for the court to bend any of the rules on your behalf. In other words, “close enough” does not count when you have missed the statute of limitations. Even missing this deadline by a day will mean the end of your case.

There are very limited exceptions to the statute of limitations. For the few that do exist, the court will construe them very narrowly, given the seriousness with which it views matters of its own jurisdiction. The most common exception to the statute of limitations is when the defendant purposely kept you from learning of your cause of action or has committed fraud to hide their actions. Even utilizing that exception has a pretty high bar for you to meet. If you are in a position where you are trying to argue that an exception to the statute of limitations applies, you are already in a difficult legal state.

The Statute of Limitations Begins When the Claim Accrues

However, the statute of limitations does not always begin to run when you think it does. The statute uses the term “when the cause of action has accrued.” Remember that, in a wrongful death case, the death of your loved one is the family’s cause of action. You suffer your own injury when your loved one dies.

In most cases, the cause of action accrues when your loved one dies. In most cases, it is very apparent what happened to your family member and why they died. For example, if they passed away weeks after a serious car accident, the statute of limitations for a lawsuit does not begin on the date of the car accident. Instead, it begins right after your loved one dies from the injuries they suffered in the car accident.

In some cases, there are questions about when the wrongful death statute of limitations has begun. You may not know immediately why your loved one died. For example, if your family member died from kidney cancer, you may not know they developed cancer because of exposure to toxins in a medication they took. In other cases, the cause of death may be unclear at the time, and you only learn what really happened later.

Usually, the statute of limitations will begin to run when you realize your loved one’s death was wrongful. Otherwise, defendants will try to hide the ball and run out the clock. A defendant might escape liability simply because enough time had passed since your loved one had died.

You Need Time to Prepare a Wrongful Death Claim

You likely will not file your claim or lawsuit immediately after your loved one has died. First, you may not be in the position to hire an attorney immediately after your loved one has died (although finances are the one thing that should never stand in your way because you do not need to pay an attorney up front). You may just not be ready to speak with an attorney right afterward. However, you can never wait too long to contact a lawyer because you can lose valuable evidence that can help to prove liability in your case.

In addition, your lawyer will need to investigate what happened, gathering the critical evidence you need to win your case. It may take some time for your lawyer to build a compelling case that can persuade a jury or an insurance company of someone else’s legal responsibility. When you file a claim, you want it to be as strong as possible, and building a case can take time. Similarly, if you file a lawsuit in court, you will need to allege facts that are sufficient enough to persuade a judge to rule against the inevitable motion to dismiss that the defendant will file.

You Have Time to File a Case, But Do Not Take it for Granted

In most cases, the statute of limitations is not an issue for the plaintiff. In most states, you have two years or longer to file a lawsuit. However, you may not file a lawsuit immediately after your loved one dies. You will likely first try to file a claim against the responsible party’s insurance policy and try to negotiate a settlement.

The insurance company will usually not settle the claim right away. The time they spend negotiating with you counts against the statute of limitations. You must always keep one eye on the clock during the legal process to know how long you have in case you need to go to court.

When you hire an experienced personal injury lawyer, they will immediately commit all relevant deadlines into their own case management system. They will watch the clock for you and ensure you do not miss the deadline. You do not need to worry about the details of the case. Your attorney will handle all of them on your behalf, easing the burden on you during this very difficult time.

From your perspective, the best thing you can do is contact an attorney as soon as possible after realizing that you may have a lawsuit. Then, you should be as cooperative as you can, working with your attorney when they need more information from you to help your case. At the very minimum, you should schedule a free initial consultation with an attorney to discuss your case and learn more about the legal process in a wrongful death case.

The only reason why you might possibly wait a long time to file a lawsuit is that settlement negotiations for an insurance claim have dragged on for too long. Otherwise, there is little reason to wait a long time to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The legal process can take a long time from start to finish, and your family may need the money. In addition, your family cannot get closure until the wrongful death case is complete. Winning a wrongful death case can give your family a sense that justice was done.

How to Win a Wrongful Death Case

In any wrongful death case, you must prove that someone else’s wrongful actions caused your loved one’s death. In most cases, you will need to prove that the defendant was negligent.

There is a four-part test to prove negligence in a wrongful death case:

  • The defendant owed your family member a duty of care to act reasonably under the circumstances.
  • The defendant breached the duty of care by departing from the standard of care. For example, in a truck accident case, the driver may have caused the accident because they were driving drowsy.
  • Your loved one suffered an injury (here, fatal injuries)
  • Your loved one would not have died had it not been for the careless actions of the defendant

You can also file a wrongful death case if the defendant was reckless or acted intentionally. For example, if your loved one died at the hands of a drunk driver, you can file a civil claim against them for compensation. It does not matter whether they are convicted in a court case. You just need to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was responsible for your loved one’s death. You can also file a civil claim if someone assaulted and killed your loved one.

You will need proof to show that someone else was responsible for your loved one’s death. The insurance company or defendant may contest the legal liability. Even if they concede that they should pay, they will try to pay you far less than you deserve.

You always can take your case to trial, where a jury might award you even more money. Therefore, by working with an experienced attorney, you can leverage your legal rights to get the most possible money when someone else was to blame for your loved one’s death.

Do Not Wait to Seek Help From a Wrongful Death Attorney

While your family is grieving your tragic loss and dealing with practical matters, the last thing you need is to add something to your plate. However, consulting with a wrongful death lawyer can remove stress from your mind, as you will not have to continue wondering about your legal rights. Seek legal help and peace of mind through a free case evaluation today.

January 14, 2023
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