Under our “Practice Areas,” we provide an overview of Wrongful Death suits that covers who can file such a claim, who is responsible in such cases and the kind of compensation you can expect from your claim (if you win). But another important question is: what must a plaintiff prove in a wrongful death suit, and how? In a U.S. court of law there are three major elements in a wrongful death case:
Duty of care is not always exactly what it sounds like. To be sure, parents, teachers, employers, doctors, and other caretakers have an obvious obligation to preserve the wellbeing of the people entrusted to them. But there are many situations when we have a “duty of care” to others that are less explicit.
When you are driving, for instance, it is your obligation to avoid harming other drivers or their vehicles. Similarly, when you are using a firearm, it is understood that you must take extra care not to injure another person (except in self-defense, which is a topic for later). Duty of care entails any such obligation that is recognized under the law.
Once duty of care is established, the plaintiff must demonstrate that this obligation was not met. Whether a parent was abusing their child, a teacher left a young student unattended, or an employer created hazardous work conditions, these can all be shown to be a breach of duty of care that implicates the defendant in a wrongful death case.
While a breach of duty of care may be a crime in and of itself, it is not enough to convict a defendant in a civil case.
The burden of proof falls on the plaintiff to demonstrate, with a preponderance of the evidence, that this breach of care led directly to the wrongful death in question. It is one thing, for example, to show that a defendant was speeding at the time of a collision; it is another to demonstrate that such reckless behavior actually precipitated the accident in question.
Many states have different laws regarding wrongful death suits that hinge upon landmark cases. In California, Mississippi, Wyoming, and New Hampshire, for instance, a wrongful death claim can be founded upon intentional infliction of emotional distress that caused the decedent to commit suicide. In other states, Dram Shop Laws allow third-parties to be charged in drunk driving cases if it can be shown they provided alcohol to the driver before they left. Due to these many discrepancies, you should always Call Your Lawyer for a consultation about wrongful death.