Is There a Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims?

A statute of limitations is a deadline to file a lawsuit. It states that a lawsuit must be filed no later than a certain number of days after the injury or crime occurred. Time limits can vary depending on the time of the incident and the jurisdiction.

In many states, the statute of limitations does not apply to serious criminal offenses like murder. However, civil cases are always subject to a statute of limitations. This includes personal injury and wrongful death suits.

Wrongful death is a type of civil lawsuit where the family or dependents of a deceased person seek compensation from a defendant whose negligence or intentional act caused the death. For instance, you can sue for the wrongful death of a family member or loved one who died due to an unsafe workplace or a defective product. Some cases involve suing a defendant whose criminal act caused a death.

The statute of limitations applies to wrongful death lawsuits. However, some nuances can affect the timeframe.

What Qualifies as a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Within the Statute of Limitations

For a case to be classified as a wrongful death and be filed within the statute of limitations, several conditions must be met. In general, a wrongful death is caused by the “wrongful act or admission of another” and could include negligence and intentional criminal acts.

Plaintiffs in wrongful death cases are usually immediate family members or dependents of the deceased person. In many states, it is required that a personal representative for the deceased’s estate file a lawsuit, but some states may have stricter or looser requirements.

The statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits also varies from state to state. For instance, in Oregon, you have three years from the date of the incident or injury that caused the death to file suit.

Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations

There are a few exceptions that can extend the statute of limitations. Here are the most common examples.

  • Age: If those involved in the case are under 18, the deadline may be paused until they reach legal adult age.
  • Fraud: If the defendant worked to actively conceal their mistakes, a court can extend the deadline from the date the concealment was discovered.
  • Mental disability: The statute of limitations can also be paused for people with mentally disabling conditions until they are deemed competent to be involved in the case.

The most common reason for delaying the statute of limitations deadline is the so-called “discovery rule.”

The ‘Discovery Rule’ in Wrongful Death Actions

The discovery rule is important in personal injury and wrongful death cases. It states that the timeframe for such cases does not start until the person discovers the injury that caused the death.

This can be important in some types of cases. For example, if someone develops cancer from using a pesticide product, they may not be aware of their illness for months or years after using the product. With the discovery rule, the clock would start at the time of a terminal diagnosis.

Who Is Eligible To Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

In most states, only eligible representatives of the deceased person’s estate can bring a wrongful death suit. These representatives qualify for eligibility based on their relationship to the deceased person and could include:

  • Spouses;
  • Children, including adopted children or stepchildren;
  • Parents, including step-parents or adoptive parents;
  • Other dependents who are entitled to inherit the estate of the deceased person.

States typically prioritize immediate family when considering wrongful death claims. For instance, a spouse or children would be able to file a suit before parents or estate representatives. However, it is best to be knowledgeable about your state’s specific laws regarding who can bring a wrongful death lawsuit, as some areas have additional criteria.

Special Considerations in Wrongful Death Actions

Other factors may influence your decision to whether or not to pursue or continue a wrongful death lawsuit. These include:

  • Impact on survivors: Legal proceedings can include testimony and in-depth participation from family members. You need to decide if they are mentally and emotionally ready to take part.
  • Settlement or trial: The defendants may try to settle the case before it goes to trial. You and the other plaintiffs will need to decide with your attorneys whether or not to accept such offers.
  • Results of criminal cases: Some civil cases will come after criminal trials. The outcome of these proceedings can affect the civil suit. However, there is a lower burden of proof in civil cases, so a defendant could still be guilty in a civil case even if they escape criminal punishment.

You should be aware of legal fees associated with filing a lawsuit. Many attorneys will waive fees unless they win the case, but you may have to cover costs from investigations, expert witnesses, and filing fees. You should make sure you are aware of the financial implications prior to filing.

How To Extend the Time Limit

The discovery rule or other rules allow you to extend the time to file a wrongful death lawsuit. You may need to do so in order to build a strong case so you can receive all of the compensation that you deserve. Here are some methods to do so:

  • Apply the discovery rule and collect evidence to support your claim. For instance, you can submit a doctor’s report with an illness diagnosis as evidence of the date of discovery.
  • Use incapacity rules, which state that a defendant was incapable of pursuing legal action prior to a certain time. Again, you will need to add supporting evidence to show that this rule should apply. For example, this could include a diagnosis from a doctor showing that the plaintiff was physically or mentally unable to handle the burden of filing a case.
  • Prove that the defendant actively concealed their role in the death or left the state to avoid litigation.

It is almost always a good idea to begin the wrongful death suit process as soon as possible after discovering the cause of the family member’s death. This ensures you do not have to worry about statute of limitations issues.

How Damages Are Awarded

Damages in wrongful death cases come in two forms: economic and non-economic. Here is a look at how these awards get calculated.

  • Loss of support amounts are usually the potential earnings for the deceased person over the remainder of their working life.
  • Emergency and funeral expenses are the costs of medical treatment before death and burial costs after death.
  • Loss of benefits include the cost of retirement plans, health insurance premiums, and other regular life expenses the plaintiffs would have gotten through the deceased person.
  • Loss of companionship assigns a financial value to the emotional toll of losing a family member and life partner.
  • Pain and suffering is a non-economic award that covers the grief and emotional pain family members feel after the death of their loved one.

Lawyers may rely on expert testimony to the damage amounts they are seeking. They may also seek punitive damages, though this requires proving intent and malice by the defendant.

What To Ask Your Legal Counsel

Wrongful death cases can be complex. You will need an experienced personal injury attorney to help build your case and account for all the variables you have to consider.

Here are some things to ask during an initial consultation with your attorney.

  • What is your experience with wrongful death lawsuits?
  • Is there a chance of getting a settlement without going to trial?
  • What are my costs if we lose the case? How about if we win?
  • What evidence or testimony will I and other family members have to supply during the case?

It is a good idea to understand your rights and options before visiting the attorney. You can find resources to educate yourself about wrongful death cases so that you know the basic concepts at work in such lawsuits.

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