Wrongful Death Lawsuit 101: How Does It Work And What Qualifies As One?

A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action filed by the surviving family members or representatives of a deceased person. This lawsuit is brought against the person or entity whose negligent or intentional actions caused the death. These types of lawsuits can be complex and require a thorough understanding of the law and the legal process.

Wrongful Death Lawsuits: How Does It Work?

A wrongful death lawsuit is filed in a civil court and does not require criminal charges to be brought against the defendant. However, if the defendant’s actions were particularly egregious, they may also face criminal charges alongside the civil action.

Here is an overview of how a wrongful death lawsuit works:

  1. The surviving family members or representatives of the deceased person consult with an attorney to determine if they have a valid wrongful death claim. The attorney will review the circumstances of the death and assess whether the necessary elements for a wrongful death claim are present. These elements include the duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages. If the attorney determines the claim is valid, they will represent the surviving family members in the lawsuit.
  2. The lawsuit is filed in civil court and served to the defendant, who then has a certain amount of time to respond. The response will typically include an admission of liability or a denial of the allegations.
  3. The discovery process begins, during which both sides gather evidence and information about the case. This may include depositions, the exchange of documents, and the inspection of relevant physical evidence. Depending on the case’s complexity, the discovery process can take several months or even longer.
  4. After the discovery process is complete, the parties may attempt to negotiate a settlement to avoid going to trial. The case will go to trial if a settlement cannot be reached.
  5. Both sides present their evidence and arguments to the jury or judge at trial. The plaintiff (the surviving family members) must prove their case by a preponderance of evidence, meaning that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable for the death of the deceased person. The defendant may present evidence to try to disprove the plaintiff’s case.
  6. If the jury or judge finds the defendant liable, they will determine the damages awarded to the surviving family members. The damages may include reimbursements for medical and funeral expenses and compensation for loss of income.
  7. The defendant may appeal the decision if they disagree with the outcome. An appeal involves a review of the case by a higher court to determine if any errors were made in the original trial. The appeal process can take several months or longer.

Wrongful death lawsuits are civil actions and are therefore separate from criminal cases. Even if the defendant is not charged with a crime or is acquitted of criminal charges, the surviving family members may still be able to bring an action for wrongful death.

These lawsuits can be complex and emotionally challenging for the surviving family members. It’s essential to seek the guidance of an experienced attorney who can help navigate the legal process and fight for the compensation that the family deserves.

It’s important to note that the specific steps and procedures in a wrongful death lawsuit can vary by state and the individual circumstances of each case. For example, the statute of limitations for wrongful death cases in Tulsa, Oklahoma, may differ from the statute of limitations in another state. Some states have specific statutes that outline the requirements for bringing a claim, while others follow common law principles established through court decisions.

Factors That Qualify An Action As A Wrongful Death Lawsuit

To qualify as a wrongful death lawsuit, the following elements must be present:

  1. Duty Of Care

The defendant must have a legal duty to act reasonably toward the deceased person. This means that the defendant owed a legal obligation to the deceased person to act with a level of care and diligence to prevent harm. For example, a doctor is bound to provide reasonable care to their patients, while a property owner has to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition.

  1. Breach Of Duty

To be successful in a wrongful death lawsuit, the surviving family members must be able to prove that the defendant has a legal obligation to observe a level of care, that the defendant breached that duty of care, that the breach of duty caused the death, and that surviving family members suffered damages as a result of the death.

So, in these cases, the defendant must be proven to have failed to fulfill their duty of care by acting negligently or intentionally causing harm. Negligence is the failure to act with the level of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in a similar situation. For example, a driver who was texting while driving and caused a car accident would be considered negligent. Intentional harm occurs when the defendant deliberately causes damage to a person or property.

  1. Causation

The defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the deceased person’s death. This means that the death would not have occurred if not for the defendant’s actions. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the death and not just a contributing factor.

  1. Damages

On top of the legal process of a wrongful death lawsuit, it’s also important to understand the role of damages in these cases. Damages usually refer to the financial losses suffered by the surviving family members as a result of the death. But it may also include compensation for the emotional pain and shock that the surviving family went through.

The specific damages that may be available in a wrongful death lawsuit vary by state but may include the following:

  • Medical Expenses

The cost of medical treatment and care for the deceased person before death. This may include hospital bills, doctor’s visits, medications, and other medical expenses.

  • Funeral Expenses

The cost of the funeral, burial, or cremation of the deceased person. This may include the cost of a casket, gravesite, headstone, and other funeral-related expenses.

  • Loss Of Income

This represents the income that the deceased person would have earned if they had not died, including salary, benefits, and other forms of compensation. This might include the value of future earnings if the deceased person was expected to have a long career.

  • Loss Of Companionship

The loss of emotional support, guidance, and love the deceased person provided to their family members. This may include the value of the deceased person’s role as a parent, spouse, or other family member.

  • Pain And Suffering

The pain and suffering experienced by the surviving family members as a result of the death can also be compensated through payment of damages. This may include the value of the deceased person’s suffering before their death and the emotional distress experienced by the surviving family members.

8. Statute Of Limitations

One crucial factor is the statute of limitations, which is the time frame in which an action for wrongful death must be filed. The period for wrongful death is typically one or three years from the accident or the victim’s death. This will vary depending on each state. The surviving family members may be barred from bringing a claim if the lawsuit is filed beyond the prescribed period.

9. Availability Of Insurance Coverage

Another factor that can impact the outcome of a wrongful death claim is the availability of insurance coverage. Many defendants in these cases are covered by insurance policies that may provide financial compensation to the surviving family members. However, insurance companies may try to minimize the compensation paid, so it’s vital to have an experienced attorney on your side to help negotiate a fair settlement.

It’s also worth noting that in some cases, the defendant may try to settle the wrongful death lawsuit out of court. This means that the parties agree to a settlement without going to trial. While settlements can be a faster and less expensive option, it’s essential to consider the terms of any settlement offer and ensure it adequately compensates the surviving family members for their losses.


Wrongful death lawsuits are a legal recourse for surviving family members who have lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligent or intentional actions. The legal process for these cases can be complex and involves several steps and considerations. It’s essential to understand your state’s specific laws and legal requirements and the damages that may be available to you. While monetary compensation cannot fully ease the pain of losing a loved one, a successful lawsuit can provide some measure of justice and help ensure that the responsible party is held accountable for their actions.

Finally, it’s essential to understand that wrongful death lawsuits can be emotionally and mentally draining for the surviving family members. The legal process can be complex and time-consuming, and dealing with the loss of a loved one can be difficult. It’s important to seek the support of loved ones and consider seeking therapy or counseling to help cope with the grief and stress of the lawsuit.