If someone you loved died due to an accident, one of the first questions you’ll want to ask a wrongful death lawyer is: What is the statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit?
The statute of limitations is the period of time within which an injured party can file a legal case. To understand the statute of limitations in wrongful death cases, it’s helpful to understand what “wrongful death” means under the law and who can bring such a case. We’ll discuss wrongful death first, and then review the statute of limitations.
What Is Wrongful Death?
In personal injury law, an injured person can bring a legal claim for damages if someone else’s negligence caused their injury. Damages are intended to compensate victims for the costs associated with their injury.
Damages can be economic, such as payment of medical bills related to the injury or wages lost from work due to the injury. In some cases, they can also be noneconomic, such as compensation for pain and suffering.
But what happens when an injury causes the injured person’s death, since the victim is no longer around to seek just compensation?
The short answer is a wrongful death claim. Wrongful death can be understood as a type of personal injury lawsuit in which the person has died rather than having simply been injured. The law states: “when the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person, his or her personal representative may maintain an action against the person causing the death for the economic and noneconomic damages sustained by the beneficiaries.”
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Under Washington law, only certain people can bring a lawsuit for wrongful death. They must have a specific relationship with the deceased person. If the deceased person was an adult, a lawsuit can be brought by:
- The personal representative of the deceased person’s estate;
- The deceased person’s spouse or state registered domestic partner;
- The deceased person’s child, children, or stepchildren; or
- If the deceased person had no spouse, state registered domestic partner, child(ren) or stepchildren, the deceased person’s parents or siblings.
If the deceased person was a child under 18 and had no spouse, state registered domestic partner, or children, the deceased child’s parents or legal guardian can bring a wrongful death claim. However, a parent needs to have regularly contributed to supporting the child and been involved in the child’s life to do so. It does not matter whether or not the deceased child’s parents are divorced, separated, or were never legally married, only their relationship to the child matters.
Either parent may file a wrongful death claim. If one parent files a claim, they must serve the other parent with a copy of the complaint within 20 days of filing it in a state court in Washington. The other parent may join in the wrongful death lawsuit if they choose.
The Statute of Limitations
A wrongful death lawsuit must be brought within three years of the date of death. Note that this may be different than the date of injury. While the statute of limitations for a personal injury case is three years from the date of injury, the wrongful death statute of limitations begins on the date of death instead. This can be days or even years after the injury, as long as the injury was the proximate cause of death.
If you try to bring a wrongful death claim after the statute of limitations has elapsed, the court is likely to refuse to hear your case.
What Compensation Can Be Obtained in Wrongful Death Cases?
Damages in a Washington wrongful death case can include compensation for the following:
- The deceased person’s medical bills related to the injury that caused their death;
- Lost wages from work and other income the deceased person would likely have earned if they had not died;
- Pain and suffering the deceased person experienced stemming from their final injury and death;
- Funeral and burial expenses;
- Damaged property; and
- Loss of care, companionship, and other noneconomic benefits suffered by the deceased person’s family.
The specific damages depend upon the plaintiff’s relationship with the deceased. While spouses, domestic partners, and children may receive compensation for loss of care and companionship, the personal representative of the estate may not.
What Is the Relationship Between a Wrongful Death Lawsuit and a Criminal Charge?
What if the death arguably resulted from a crime? Often, we think of a death caused by someone else’s actions as murder or manslaughter. If someone died at the hands of a drunk driver, for instance, the driver could face charges of vehicular manslaughter in Washington state, which is a Class A felony. What if the other person’s negligence was gross enough to arguably constitute murder or manslaughter?
A wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal charge such as vehicular manslaughter vary significantly.
First, wrongful death lawsuits are civil lawsuits. They are argued in civil, not criminal, courts. Murder and manslaughter charges, and all felonies, are argued in criminal courts. The two court systems are separate.
Second, wrongful death lawsuits must be brought by a party seeking redress for the wrongful death. As described above, they must have a specific relationship with the deceased. They are “plaintiffs” in the case, while the party accused of negligence is the “defendant.”
Criminal court cases, on the other hand, are never brought by parties with a relationship to the deceased. They are brought by the state on behalf of the public. The state attorney’s office decides whether someone’s actions are a crime. If the state attorney determines a crime has likely been committed, it is their duty to charge the accused party with that crime. State attorneys prosecute the case, rather than a civil wrongful death attorney.
Third, wrongful death lawsuits seek financial compensation for the plaintiffs. Criminal cases seek to determine the accused person’s guilt or innocence.
Fourth, plaintiffs in wrongful death lawsuits, if successful, are awarded compensation either from the negligent party’s insurance company or their personal assets. In a criminal case, if the defendant is found guilty, the state will impose appropriate penalties according to the law, which can be a prison sentence, fines, and more.
Fifth, the burden of proof in a criminal court is different than in a civil court. Criminal convictions rely on the court finding that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil courts rely on a preponderance of evidence to prove negligence, which means that the court must decide that the defendant was more likely negligent than not, for the plaintiff to secure compensation.
Under Washington state law, the outcome of a related criminal case does not affect a plaintiff’s ability to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. In other words, you can still bring a wrongful death lawsuit if a crime has been charged and a trial is ongoing, or even if the accused is found innocent.
Who Can Be Liable for Wrongful Death?
The outcome of a wrongful death case depends on proving the defendant’s negligence, just as personal injury cases do. “Negligence” means that the defendant failed to exercise the ordinary standard of care that a prudent person would have exercised in the circumstances. If the defendant’s negligence caused the fatal injury, the defendant can be found liable for the death.
Almost any person or entity who negligently causes a fatal injury or harm that leads to death could be liable for wrongful death. Some examples include:
- A driver who had too much to drink and hit another car head-on, killing two passengers.
- A driver in a parked car who opened his car door directly a motorcyclist’s path, causing the motorcyclist to go flying over his handlebars and die as a result of his ensuing head injury.
- A homeowner who didn’t supervise neighborhood children hanging around her swimming pool, one of whom drowned.
- A homeowner who left pesticides outside his garage, where they were ingested by a four-year-old neighbor, who ultimately died.
- A trucking company that failed to hire qualified and licensed drivers, one of whom caused a fatal accident.
- A construction company that failed to provide safe working conditions, causing a worker to be crushed by a falling load of concrete on the job.
- A dog owner whose dog bit an invited neighbor, who contracted a fatal infection.
- A doctor who failed to properly diagnose her patient’s sepsis, leading to the patient’s death.
- A landlord who chronically lets lights burn out in the stairwell, and whose tenant fell down the stairs and broke her neck.
- A theater owner whose show pyrotechnics malfunctioned, causing two audience members to suffer fatal burns.
- A toy manufacturer whose products exploded in children’s hands, causing fatal injuries.
- A car manufacturer that marketed vehicles with faulty brakes, the failure of which caused a fatal accident.
- A nursing home where staff left an elderly resident unattended for 3 hours during a field trip, after which she died of hypothermia.
- An assisted living facility where staff mixed up medications for its patients, causing one to die.
How Can Someone Prove Wrongful Death?
As you can see from the above examples, each wrongful death case is unique, with a unique set of actors, circumstances, and events. In all of them, however, proving wrongful death requires evidence.
In some instances, evidence can be obtained from the police. All kinds of fatal vehicle accidents—car, truck, bicycle, and motorcycle—are initially investigated by the police. They will talk to surviving victims and make observations about the likely cause of the accident by looking at the accident scene, the vehicles, and the environment. They then issue a police report, which can be used as evidence. Eyewitnesses can also describe how a vehicle accident happened.
If the police have cause to think a driver is under the influence of alcohol or illegal substances, they can take appropriate steps to determine whether they are and arrest the person if so.
In all types of wrongful death cases, eyewitnesses can provide testimony. Were other parents around a swimming pool where a child drowned, for example? They can be asked whether the child was being supervised. Workers on a construction site can be asked what happened.
People familiar with the situation can also be asked about ongoing or chronic situations, even if they weren’t eyewitnesses. Does a landlord habitually leave light bulbs unchanged, for instance? Other tenants can be asked. Is a nursing home chronically understaffed, leading patients to be neglected or left unattended for long periods of time? Are staff under-trained or are conditions chaotic, leading to medical errors? Is a neighbor’s dog always aggressive?
Many cases, however, may rely on a loved one’s actions and suspicions. Finding out about instances of medical malpractice, for example, can be difficult. Doctors and the places that employ them, such as clinics and hospitals, may conceal or simply fail to acknowledge medical malpractice. If you feel that a loved one died unexpectedly or in unusual circumstances, or wasn’t treated correctly for their illness, you may have to ask for a copy of their death certificate to see the cause of death.
Similarly, cases of nursing home abuse may not be apparent unless loved ones are vigilant. While medical staff should report these cases, they may feel intense pressure not to report them accurately. It’s a sad fact, but a true one. If you suspect that the nursing home staff where your loved one lived were not well-trained or adequately competent, or a loved one’s death in a nursing home was unexpected or seemed odd, you may have to ask some hard questions.
In instances of product liability, evidence can sometimes be gleaned from public records. Adverse effects of medications, for example, are generally publicly reported (and widespread problems can make their way into the news). Cars with known and repeated defects may be subject to recall.
Ultimately, it may be wise to consult a wrongful death attorney with your concerns. Attorneys work with investigative teams and experts. In many cases, an investigation into your loved one’s cause of death and the circumstances surrounding their death may be needed. Experts may need to testify about your loved one’s likely causes of death.
If you need further assistance, contact an experienced wrongful death lawyer today.
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Seattle, WA 98121