Sadly, thousands of people across the country die each year because of the misconduct or negligence of others. These tragedies can be the result of a variety of circumstances, including a car or plane accident, faulty or dangerous products, exposure to hazardous materials or conditions while at work, criminal activity or medical malpractice. The surviving family members of the deceased may choose to file a wrongful death civil lawsuit to seek damages to compensate for the losses caused by these harrowing and avoidable events. Each state legislature has its own statute of limitations which sets time limits on how long after an injury or accident occurs that a claim can be filed. These sets of laws were created primarily to protect defendants from the loss or degradation of evidence over time. This deadline can be as little as a year in some situations, although in a majority of cases, the statute of limitations is longer. If you have lost a loved one and are wondering how long your family has to pursue legal action, you’re probably trying to learn more about the wrongful death statute of limitations. In this blog post, we’ll explore how these statutes work and explain how these laws apply in one state: Texas.
Perhaps the most important piece of information that you need to know is that the statute of limitations for wrongful death cases are an incredibly complex set of laws. In some states, the types of personal injury involved in a specific case can trigger a different set of time limits. In other states, the amount plaintiffs can receive in damages is capped. In most cases, the statute of limitations for minors does not begin until the individuals reach the age of 18. In all of these situations, when the statute of limitations runs out, surviving family members lose the right to sue. During the extremely trying, emotional time after the loss of a loved one, having an experienced wrongful death attorney advising you on the best approach to seek some measure of justice is crucial.
In a wrongful death claim, the family of the deceased must prove negligence, causation, and damages in order to obtain a favorable outcome. The claim must first establish that a careless or negligent act of another person or party resulted in fatal injuries. So, a tire manufacturer could be found guilty of wrongful death for putting a defective product on the market which caused a driver to lose control and crash. A person who died in an accident as a result of them texting while driving, however, would not have the grounds for a wrongful death claim caused by their own conduct.
Proof of negligence in a wrongful death case requires demonstrating there has been a breach of duty. This means that the claimant must show that the defendant had some responsibility to protect the deceased from harm. For example, a helicopter pilot who chooses to fly in unsafe conditions may be found guilty of wrongful death if that decision put passengers in danger. Duty of care could mean that a person or party either acts in a way that is deemed unreasonable or fails to act when doing so would avoid harm. There are different levels of care for different types of activities. An employer that requires workers to handle hazardous substances on a regular basis has a different standard of care than in other workplaces. Different types of defendants also have different requirements for “ordinary care”. A landowner, for instance, is responsible for keeping a property safe for renters and guests so that dangerous condition of the property doesn’t create a risk bodily harm inside their apartment or on the grounds.
Claimants must also show causation, which is done by linking negligence to a person’s death. In a fatal car accident, the wrongful death attorney must prove that, for instance, a trucker falling asleep at the wheel was directly related to a semi crossing into another lane and having a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle, severing the spine of a passenger and killing him. A wrongful death claim also involves exploring the suffering and losses incurred as a result of the accident, which can be financial and emotional. These expenses can include a loss of future income, medical costs, and pain and suffering for the surviving family members.
Given the complexity of these cases and all of the information that must be gathered to file a claim, the statute of limitations provides a deadline to take legal action. When exactly does this time period begin?
The “Discovery of Harm” Rule
The statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim typically begins when the party filing either discovers or should have discovered the breach of duty that caused the death. If a person dies in a serious accident, this starting date can be relatively straightforward. In some cases, however, a person may not experience injury or harm immediately, but may “discover” it later. For example, let’s say that someone had surgery, but the doctor neglected to remove a temporary abdominal bandage before the procedure was over. Several years later, the same person had another procedure in the same area, and a doctor finds the error. If the patient did not realize the bandage was there until years later, the statute of limitations would not begin until the “discovery of harm” was made. In other cases, the limitations period can begin prior to someone dying if that person knew or should have known the cause of an illness.
The lapse in discovering a type of injury must be reasonable in these cases. What that might mean in practice is if the person described above was experiencing abdominal pain for several years before the second surgery but refused medical care, it is not reasonable to file a lawsuit only after the second surgery, since the discovery of harm took place after the first surgery when medical attention was refused. In many types of common injuries, such as after car accidents, injuries occur on impact, so there is nothing to “discover” later on.
If the statute of limitations expires without filing a personal injury claim while the injured is alive, the statute of limitations does not revive even if the person ultimately dies from the related injuries. The limitation period for some product liability claims begins on the day of an individual’s death, no matter if the cause was known prior, so the discovery rule does not always apply. To make matters even more complicated, some states set a “statute of repose”, which prohibits a party from filing a claim if a product linked is beyond a certain age. For families in crisis, a knowledgeable lawyer with a firm grasp of these laws and proven track record can be invaluable.
Can a Statute of Limitations Be Waived or Extended?
In some situations, the statute of limitations can be tolled, or extended, for a certain period of time. This might occur if the person being sued is in jail, living out of state, has mental disabilities, or if the claimant is a minor. In these cases, counting towards the time limit begins once this suspension period is over. Ignorance is not sufficient reason to extend the statute of limitations, particularly in cases where an impacted party could reasonably be expected to investigate the cause of death. If the cause of death is fraudulently concealed, the limitations period can be waived. In some states, the opposing party or the court can waive the statute of limitations period, although these two scenarios are complicated and rare.
Now that we have reviewed many of the principles and nuances of wrongful death claims, let’s see how these laws apply in Texas.
The Statute of Limitations in Texas
In Texas, as in other states, the time limit on filing wrongful death claims varies, and lawmakers frequently revisit these statutes. The Civil Practice and Remedies Code of the Texas Constitution establishes limitations on personal injury claims, including wrongful death. With some exceptions, an individual or family has two years from the day the event caused the death to file a claim. The law provides more guidance related to fatal injuries sustained as a result of exposure to asbestos, as well as a different set of time limits in the case of criminal offenses, including child abuse.
In addition, Texas law restricts who can file a wrongful death claim to the parents or adoptive parents, children or legally adopted children, or the spouse of the deceased. This is different from some states, which allow grandparents, siblings, or other members of the extended family to file a claim. In most cases, the limitations period begins when an individual turns 18 years of age. As in many other states, the statute of limitations is tolled for minors. Other parts of the law set caps on damages in certain types of wrongful death claims. The statutes allow claimants to seek compensation for loss of care, maintenance, and support, loss of advice and counsel, loss of love and companionship, mental anguish, loss of future monetary contributions, lost inheritance, and funeral expenses.
Slack Davis Sanger Can Help Your Family Recover From a Tragedy
Facing a tragic accident or injury which results in a death of a loved one is incredibly difficult, especially when the tragedy could have been prevented. The caring and compassionate attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger can help you navigate the complicated and sometimes confusing web of existing state laws, which can be revised each year, to seek adequate compensation for your loss.
The firm handles cases involving catastrophic personal injuries and deaths. Our work spans three decades of handling airplane and helicopter crashes, truck and car accidents, oilfield and construction accidents, and other devastating accidents. We try lawsuits throughout the country in both federal and state courts and have recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for our clients. To date, we have handled or tried cases in 47 states, read more about our attorneys and firm.