Who Gets the Money in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

For those people who find themselves in the tragic situation of having lost a loved one in a preventable accident or due to someone else’s intentional act of harm, it is only natural to wonder what happens next. When surviving family members file a wrongful death lawsuit after their loved one died due to someone else’s misconduct or negligence, the question of who gets the money in a wrongful death lawsuit may come up. However, there are other questions that must be asked and answered to more fully understand the road ahead, such as what is considered wrongful death in the court of law?

If a patient dies because a doctor failed to provide the necessary level or type of care, for example, or if a drunk driver causes an accident that kills another motorist, the surviving members of the victim’s family can file a wrongful death claim against the person responsible for their loved one’s loss of life. These are just two examples of situations that could merit a wrongful death lawsuit; there are many others. If a worker dies in an accident caused by hazardous conditions at a job site, for example, or someone is killed by someone else’s criminal activity, their surviving family members could choose to file a wrongful death claim against the responsible party.

Wrongful death lawsuits are civil matters, which means they can be filed regardless of whether anyone is ever criminally charged or found guilty for the person’s death. Not just anyone can file a wrongful death claim, however; the state of Texas has specific requirements regarding who does and does not have the right to file a claim. Furthermore, the plaintiffs in a wrongful death lawsuit must be able to prove that their loved one’s death was the direct result of someone else’s act of negligence or misconduct.

In wrongful death claims, personal injury attorneys must show that there was a duty of care that was breached—meaning, the defendant failed to exercise proper care or caution with regards to the victim, and that failure led to the victim’s death. If this can be proven, the defendant can be held legally liable for the death, even if they are never held criminally responsible. In addition, the surviving family members may be entitled to compensation for their loss. Compensation can come in various forms, but it often comes in the form of money collected by the victim’s family. To receive this compensation, the plaintiff’s attorney must be able to prove that all of the elements of wrongful death occurred.

A lawyer reviewing wrongful death elements with a clientWrongful Death Elements: Filing a Viable Claim

There are certain wrongful death elements that are required to successfully pursue a wrongful death claim. In order to hold a person, company, doctor, manufacturer, or other entity liable for someone’s death, the following wrongful death elements must be proven by plaintiffs’ attorneys:

  • Someone died, and the death was not a result of a no-fault accident or because of something the victim did, themselves. Rather, the death was caused by someone else’s negligence or intentional act—something done on purpose in order to cause harm to the victim.
  • The act of negligence or intentional harm led directly to the victim’s death.
  • The person who died must have surviving family members who are suffering financially and emotionally due to the loss of their loved one.
  • The person who died must have someone who is legally in charge of and responsible for the deceased’s estate.

When someone dies because of someone else’s negligence or wrongful act, the surviving family members often incur expenses related to the death, either immediately or within a short amount of time. These costs can include hospital or medical bills, funeral and burial expenses, any property damage related to the death (as in the case of a car accident), and short-term lost wages. These costs will all be part of the basis of determining the amount of compensation to which the victim’s family members are entitled.

There are other costs that can add up in the weeks, months, and years following someone’s wrongful death and cause ongoing financial harm to their surviving family members, which could also be considered when determining compensation in a wrongful death suit. These might include longer-term lost income—that is, the financial support that the person would have continued to contribute to their family if they had lived—and lost inheritance, as well as other, less tangible yet still profound losses, such as compensation for emotional distress and suffering and the loss of comfort and companionship.

All of the above types of costs must be proven by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in order for their clients to receive compensation in a wrongful death lawsuit.

A man signing paperworkWrongful Death Lawsuit Texas: Legal Requirements

Not just anyone can file a wrongful death lawsuit. Texas has specific requirements regarding who can file a claim after someone loses a life due to a preventable act or accident. In the state of Texas, surviving immediate family members may have the right to compensation after the wrongful death of a loved one, as well as the deceased person’s spouse. This includes same-sex spouses and those either legally married or legally recognized as having been involved in a common-law marriage with the decedent (the person who died).

The decedent’s parents are also considered immediate family members who can file a wrongful death claim, whether they are biological or adoptive. Step-parents and foster parents, however, do not normally have the legal right in Texas to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. The children of the decedent can also file a wrongful death claim, whether they are legally minors or adults, and whether they are biological or adopted.

Complications can arise if the person filing the wrongful death claim was the decedent’s spouse who was separated or filing for divorce at the time of their death. Normally, separated spouses or those in the process of filing for divorce do have legal grounds for pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit, but if the divorce had already been finalized at the time of death, the ex-spouse is unlikely to have legal grounds for a claim.

Unfortunately, other family members, such as siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, do not have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Texas, unless they have been legally appointed as the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. The same is true of others close to the decedent, such as close friends, housemates, a romantic partner, or even a fiancé.

There are other wrongful death lawsuit Texas laws that may come into play in certain cases. For example, Texas law provides for plaintiffs in certain wrongful death lawsuits by awarding exemplary damages. Exemplary damages are connected with making an example of the defendant; these can come into play in cases involving gross negligence, willful criminal acts, or willful acts of fraud or omission that led to someone’s preventable death.

Law books and a gavel on a deskWrongful Death Statute of Limitations: Texas Laws and Limits

In every state, there are rules regarding how long someone has from the date of their loved one’s death to file a wrongful death lawsuit. When it comes to wrongful death statute of limitations, Texas requires such lawsuits to be filed within two years of the person’s wrongful death, unless certain exceptions or extenuating circumstances apply.

One exception that may extend the two-year statute of limitations is in cases when the cause of death was not known until much later. Under these circumstances, a wrongful death lawsuit might legally be filed past the two-year mark, since filing within the proper time limit would have been impossible as the specific cause and nature of death weren’t yet known. Another exception that applies in certain cases is when the plaintiff had some type of physical or mental impairment that rendered them unable to file the claim within the normal two-year period.

Exceptions to the two-year statute of limitations in Texas can also be made when fraud was involved in the person’s death, or when the plaintiff was a child when they lost a parent due to someone’s negligence or willful act of harm. In this type of case, the child can’t be expected to have filed a wrongful death claim in a timely manner due to their legal status as a minor. Therefore, instead of the two-year statute of limitations beginning on the date of the wrongful death, that two-year period may begin on the child’s 18th birthday, when they become of legal age to file a suit—even if the wrongful death occurred many years earlier.

A man signing a documentHow Are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid Out?

Many people who file wrongful death lawsuits wonder what happens when a case goes to trial. And afterward, how are wrongful death settlements paid out? Plenty of people who file a wrongful death claim may not realize that the majority of these lawsuits are settled out of court. Usually, this is in the best interest of both the plaintiff and the defendant, since it costs both sides more in legal fees if they have to go to court for lengthy legal proceedings. For this reason, most attorneys try to reach an acceptable settlement for their clients.

The most common way for defendants to pay out wrongful death settlements is via lump-sum payments—meaning, one payment to the decedent’s surviving family members, who can then choose how to use or divide up their settlement. The family members might choose to use portions of the settlement to cover hospital bills or funeral costs, divide it evenly among family members, or make some other personal arrangement.

In structured settlements, the defendant will pay the plaintiff predetermined incremental amounts over time rather than one lump sum following the settlement. This is less common than lump-sum payments. Victims’ families normally prefer to have access to their full settlements as soon as possible, so they can determine how to use the full amount in whatever way works best for them.

There are certain situations in which the rightful recipient of a wrongful death settlement may not receive the money right away. For example, if the decedent’s children are minors, the court may appoint a trustee or guardian to be in charge of all compensation from the settlement until the decedent’s children become legal adults, at which point they will be legally allowed to receive the settlement.

When your life is profoundly affected by the death of a loved one, there is nothing that can make that loss better, and the pain can be profound and ongoing. This is especially true when the death was avoidable, when it should never have happened and would not have happened if everyone involved had behaved lawfully and responsibly. Getting the compensation you deserve won’t bring your loved one back, but it can help to alleviate any financial difficulties associated with your loss, allowing you to focus on trying to heal as you adjust to your new life.

Slack Davis Sanger: Powerful Advocates in Wrongful Death Lawsuits

After the unexpected and tragic loss of a loved one, it can be difficult for surviving family members to know what to do next, or how to proceed if the death was caused by someone else’s negligence or intentionally harmful act. The attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger are leaders in successfully representing bereaved family members in wrongful death lawsuits. We are compassionate listeners who treat our clients with sensitivity, empathy, and respect as we relentlessly pursue the compensation they deserve for this life-changing loss.