Wrongful Death: When Carelessness Kills

When someone dies unexpectedly, for instance as a result of a car accident or violent assault, his or her survivors are likely to sustain a variety of financial and non-financial losses. When someone dies because of another person's carelessness or wrongdoing, Florida's wrongful death law is designed to shift the resulting losses as much as possible onto the party who caused the death — rather than the victim's family members.

Depending on the circumstances, a person who causes someone else's death in Florida may be liable to the survivors for a variety of losses, such as:

  • Past and future lost income
  • Hospital bills and other medical expenses
  • Funeral costs
  • Loss of household services
  • Mental pain and suffering
  • Loss of companionship, care and guidance

The parties who are eligible to file a claim for wrongful death in Florida typically include the surviving spouse, children or parents of the deceased individual. However, in certain situations, other dependent relatives of the deceased person may also be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

An Introduction To Negligence

A central concept in many personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits is the principle of negligence. In a nutshell, negligence describes carelessness that results in harm to someone else. For example, a driver who runs a red light and strikes a pedestrian may be considered negligent.

When someone is found negligent in a court of law, they can be held financially accountable for the harm they cause. A person who files a claim for personal injury or wrongful death is called a plaintiff, or may also be referred to as a claimant. The person accused of causing the injury — the allegedly negligent party — is called a defendant.

From a legal standpoint, there are four elements that must be proven in order to establish liability for negligence. These include:

  • Duty. The injured person must show that the he or she was owed a legal duty of care by the at-fault party. In other words, the wrongdoer had a legal obligation to act with reasonable care toward the person who was injured. For example, drivers have a duty to others on the road that requires them to drive safely and obey traffic laws.
  • Breach. The claimant must also show that the at-fault party breached his or her duty to the injured person by failing to act with reasonable care under the circumstances. For instance, a driver who speeds through a red light may be in breach of his or her duty of care to others.
  • Damages. On their own, duty and breach of that duty are not enough to prove a claim of negligence; there also must be some type of harm or injury. For example, if a driver runs a red light and strikes another vehicle, the damages may include injuries and damage to the vehicle.
  • Causation. Finally, the injured person is also required to establish that the damage was actually caused by the at-fault party's conduct. In other words, the claimant must show that his or her injuries would not have occurred were it not for the negligence of the other party. For example, a person seeking compensation for a back injury after a car accident must show that it was caused by the crash and not by some other circumstance, such as a fall on the ice.

To prove the elements of negligence, it is typically necessary to gather evidence from a variety of sources, such as medical records, witness statements and police reports.

A Matter Of Fairness

Someone who has been injured by another party's negligence has a right to seek compensation through the civil legal system by filing a personal injury lawsuit against the party responsible for causing the injury. If the victim dies as a result of his or her injuries, however, Florida law provides that the personal injury claim is extinguished. In other words, when an injury victim dies, his or her legal claim dies too and is no longer legally valid.

Historically, the extinguishing of a personal injury claim upon the death of a claimant created an unjust situation in which a defendant could be held accountable for causing non-fatal injuries but not for causing someone's death. The Florida Wrongful Death Act was established to address that injustice by making negligent parties liable to the victim's families in the event that their misdeeds result in someone's death.

The Florida Wrongful Death Act is designed to replace the financial resources of the deceased person with those of the negligent party. In this way, wrongful death liability prevents wrongdoers from escaping responsibility for their actions and helps to minimize the financial burden on the surviving dependents of the person who died.

The Difference Between Civil Liability And Criminal Charges

Sometimes, wrongful death cases arise out of the same circumstances that lead to criminal charges, such as drunk driving, manslaughter and homicide. However, there are some important differences between the two types of cases. Each one exists independently of the other; a civil claim for wrongful death can be successful even in the absence of criminal charges, or even if the criminal case resulted in an acquittal or not guilty verdict.

In the mid-1990s, the O.J. Simpson trials provided a useful illustration of this concept. In his criminal trial, Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife. However, he was later found liable for wrongful death in a civil trial arising from the same alleged events.

When a person is charged with a crime, the case is filed by the government in criminal court. In these cases, it is up to the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high burden of proof. If the defendant is found guilty, he or she may be sentenced to prison or ordered to pay a fine to the government.

In contrast, a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit is filed not by the government, but by the victim or the victim's survivors — typically the spouse, children or parents of the deceased individual. This type of case takes place in civil court, which is separate from the criminal court system, and follows a different set of rules and procedures.

In civil court, it is up to the plaintiff and his or her attorney to prove the elements of the case. However, the burden of proof is lower than it is in criminal court. Instead of "beyond a reasonable doubt," the standard in civil lawsuits is "a preponderance of the evidence." Put simply, this means that the plaintiff must establish that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable for causing the injury or death. If the defendant is found liable, he or she can be required to provide monetary compensation directly to the plaintiff.

Getting Help With Your Claim

If someone in your family has died as a result of someone else's carelessness or wrongdoing, protecting your own legal rights may be the last thing on your mind. However, the statute of limitations for wrongful death in Florida is just two years. This means that you must file your claim within two years after the day that your loved one passed away, or you may permanently lose your right to seek compensation for yourself and your family.

While two years may seem like plenty of time, it is important to keep in mind that building a successful case can be a very complex and time-consuming process. Therefore, it is a good idea to talk things over with a wrongful death attorney sooner rather than later to learn about your legal options and find out how best to protect your rights.