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Washington, D.C.’s Code section 16-2701 of the law refers to a wrongful death as the injury to a person that results in the death of that individual and is caused by the neglect or wrongful act of another person or organization. The action that led to the death has to be of the sort that could have formed the basis of apersonal injury claim had the deceased person survived. Slip and fall injuries, defective products, car accidents, trucking accidents, and other such situations might serve as the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Since personal injury and wrongful death tend to be linked to the kinds of injuries that can give rise to such suits, one way to consider a wrongful death claim in D.C. is to bring the claim to a court on that person’s behalf and seek civil remedy for their own losses regarding the person’s death with the help of a skilled wrongful death lawyer.
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Who Is Allowed to File a Wrongful Death Claim in the District of Columbia?
In the District of Columbia, the personal representative of the deceased’s estate has to file the claim on behalf of surviving spouses or domestic partners. However, if there is no such surviving domestic partner or spouse, the next of kin are entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Such persons may include siblings, parents, or children of the deceased.
If damages are awarded and the deceased had an estate plan or will, the damages will be paid to the estate, which then distributes them to the domestic partner or spouse, children, parents, or any other next of kin. The damages are calculated in proportion to the loss each individual suffered.
However, if the person dies without a will, called “intestate,” damages can be allocated thus:
- Completely to the spouse, if there are no surviving parents or children
- Two thirds of the damages awarded to the spouse, if there are surviving children, and the remainder to the children
- Half to the spouse, if there are surviving children that belong to the deceased but not to his or her spouse, and the rest to the children
- Three quarters to the spouse, if there are not any children but at least one parent left of the deceased
- Completely to the siblings if there are no parents, children, or spouse
- Completely to the parents if there are no children or spouse
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Different Types of Wrongful Death
As we have established, wrongful death is a legal term that is used to describe the taking of an individual’s life through another entity’s negligent, deliberate, or willful action. When someone dies through another party’s wrongful conduct, the deceased person’s lawful beneficiaries and heirs can take legal action via a wrongful death lawsuit.
Many wrongful death claims in the District of Columbia are filed on behalf of a victim’s survivors for a wide variety of incidences, occurrences, and accidents, where someone has been killed through wrongful behavior or negligence.
Most claims tend to involve fatal incidences from a range of sources, for example:
- Car accidents
- Medical errors
- Dangerous prescription drugs
- Product liability
- Nursing home neglect
- Drunk driving
- Faulty roadways
- Commercial truck accidents
- Defective tires
- Malfunctioning brakes systems
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Who Can Be Sued for Wrongful Death?
A wrongful death civil action may be filed against a wide range of people, including doctors, individuals, hospitals, medical staff members, companies, government agencies, manufacturers, and company employees.
Defendants in a wrongful death claim or lawsuit can include:
- Commercial truckers found to be at fault for fatal accidents
- Drivers found negligent in a car accident that resulted in death
- Automobile manufacturers, installers, and car distributors who are found to have dealt with dangerous tires, brakes, and vehicle parts
- Attending physicians in medical malpractice cases
- Government agencies who fail to correctly maintain roadways or warn drivers against dangerous driving conditions
- Liquor stores, restaurants, bars, and people selling, giving, or serving alcohol to a driver who is already impaired and should not get behind the wheel
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What Damages Are Usually Awarded in Wrongful Death Suits?
Damages awarded in wrongful death cases in the District of Columbia are usually set by the jury or by the judge in the event that there is no jury. Such damages are based on the facts presented by your wrongful death lawyer, as well as on the injury suffered by the surviving partner, spouse, and next of kin as a result of the untimely loss of the loved one. The damages are distributed to the survivors as opposed to being paid to the estate.
The damages in such cases might include recovery for:
- Burial and funeral costs
- Medical bills and emergency care that relate to the deceased’s last injury or illness
- Lost benefits and wages that the deceased was likely to have earned if he or she had lived until retirement age
- Any contributions the deceased may have made to support loved ones, including companionship, care, and any other such services for his or her surviving loved ones
The District of Columbia does not place a limit, or cap, on the damages that surviving family members can recover. But survivors in such claims are not permitted to seek damages for grief, mental distress, sorrow, or the loss of affection and love.
The Statute of Limitations for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim in the District of Columbia
The District of Columbia has a statute of limitations that is aimed at limiting the amount of time survivors have to file a lawsuit over a wrongful death. Up until 2012, the deadline was set for one year from the date of death. But, since 2012, survivors have two years from the date of their loved one’s death to file a lawsuit.
It is worth mentioning that wrongful death suits can be filed even if there is a criminal case proceeding based on the same facts. For example, if someone loses his or her life in a car crash and the government opts to file criminal charges against the driver, survivors can still file a wrongful death claim in the civil court against the other driver concurrently.
How Can Survivors File a Wrongful Death Case?
Typically, the victims of an injury bring their own action for damages. However, with wrongful death laws, actions may be filed on the deceased’s behalf. In D.C., the law allows for the personal representatives to file a wrongful death action, as mentioned earlier. Typically, this person is the one who is named as the administrator or executor of the estate.
In making a claim, the estate is required to show that the deceased’s death was:
- Caused by a neglectful, default, or wrongful act of an individual or organization
- The victim, had he or she survived, would have been entitled to damages
While wrongful death action usually addresses damages after a person’s death, their estate can file a survival action as a companion claim to cover damages incurred leading up to the death, such as the deceased’s pain and suffering.
How Damages Are Allocated to the Deceased’s Family Members
While claims are typically brought by the personal representative of the estate, when the damages are awarded in these types of cases, they are usually allocated to surviving family members based on the findings of each of their losses. For example, where a jury or judge finds that 80% of a wrongful death award is based on the widow’s losses, and 20% is based on the losses of the deceased’s children, the award is paid out to each party according to the respective percentages.
Can a Wrongful Death Lawyer Help with Claims against the Federal Government?
Another feature of D.C. that has to be mentioned is that it is home to governmental agencies that are regularly sued for wrongful death. These kinds of cases could involve claims by the family members of drone strike victims who wish to seek redress from the government or even medical malpractice claims against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cases where the federal government is named as a defendant are filed in the federal court under the Federal Tort Claims Act or FTCA. While the FTCA is not governed by D.C.’s wrongful death laws, there are parts where it relies on the laws of the District. For instance, under the Act, claims may only be brought where the U.S., if a private individual, would be liable to a claimant in terms of the law of the place where the omission or act occurred. So, there are some situations where the District’s laws can determine whether or not the federal government is liable for wrongful death under the FTCA.
Frequently Asked Questions about Wrongful Death in the District of Columbia
What qualifies as a wrongful death in the District of Columbia?
Wrongful death, as mentioned earlier, is defined as a death following an injury that was a result of default, neglect, or a wrongful action of another person or business. A claim can be filed if the death was a result of any type of negligence, recklessness, intentional conduct, or carelessness that would otherwise provide the deceased person a right to recovery had they lived. Such instances may include car accidents, defective products, slips and falls, malfunctioning products, and other types of incidents resulting from neglect or actions of a person, corporation, government entity, hospital, or any other organization.
Who can file a lawsuit for wrongful death?
Such lawsuits can be brought in the name of the deceased person’s personal representative. The beneficiaries of a wrongful death claim are defined by the District’s statute, and usually include surviving children, spouses, and other family members depending on the facts of the particular case. If the deceased did not have a surviving partner or spouse, the parents, siblings, or children qualify as next of kin, and this makes them eligible to recover damages via a lawsuit.
How much time does someone have to file a wrongful death suit in the District of Columbia?
Under D.C.’s wrongful death act, the deceased person’s personal representative is obliged to file a lawsuit within two years of the date of the person’s death. If a suit is not filed within this timeframe, the victim’s family will forego the right to receive any financial compensation for their loss.
If there is already a criminal case in process, can a wrongful death lawsuit still be filed?
The simple answer is yes. A wrongful death lawsuit is viewed as a civil case, which means that even if there is a criminal proceeding in place, the lawsuit can still be filed. For instance, if an individual is facing criminal charges for DUI or manslaughter, the deceased’s family can still file a wrongful death claim to seek compensation for their losses.
What kinds of damages can be recovered in such a case?
In such cases, damages can be awarded to the deceased person’s family members to cover expenses and losses such as: the cost of funeral services; loss of financial support; medical bill costs; and the value of lost services, including companionship, education, training, care, support, and personal advice.
In the District of Columbia, beneficiaries cannot and will not be awarded damages for mental distress, loss of affection/love, and grief. What’s more, there is no set limit to govern how much money may be awarded in damages in such cases. The jury that is assigned to the wrongful death case will decide on the amount of money to be awarded. If there is no jury in the case, the judge will make the decision. Even if there is a jury, the judge can exercise his or her discretion to reduce a verdict if it is considered to be out or proportion with the real losses suffered.
How are wrongful death damages distributed?
The judge or jury on the case will determine the amount of compensation that a victim’s estate will receive. The amount to be awarded depends on the losses suffered by surviving family members as a result of the person’s death. If the deceased had a will, his or her personal representative will act as a trustee of the estate for the family and will, therefore, become responsible for distributing the damages among surviving family members so as to compensate them in proportion to their loss and suffering. If the victim did not have a will when he or she died, and the judgment or verdict will not specify an allocation of damages, the damages are then distributed directly to surviving partners, spouses, or next of kin, depending on which descendants remain. If there is no verdict or judgment specifying the amount of damages to be allocated, the same rules governing distribution will apply, as laid out earlier in the article. It must be noted that the earlier examples do not account for possible distributions. However, they do illustrate how complex the distribution of wrongful death compensation can become.
How likely is it that a wrongful death case can be tried in court?
As is the case with most civil litigation, the majority of wrongful death cases in the District of Columbia can be settled out of court by reaching a settlement agreement with the parties who caused the death. But, since it is possible for just about any lawsuit to go to trial, is it essential to choose an experienced wrongful death lawyer. A skilled lawyer will have the necessary experience to negotiate the best possible settlement out of court if the liable party is willing to do so.
How much do attorneys charge for handling a wrongful death case?
In most D.C. wrongful death cases, the attorney and client will agree to a contingency fee arrangement. In this type of arrangement, the client is not required to pay any amount of money upfront. Rather, the lawyer receives an agreed-upon percentage of the total amount of financial damages recovered at the conclusion of the wrongful death case. If no damages are recovered, however, there is no fee. Typically, the percentage of finances paid to the wrongful death lawyer will vary based on each case’s circumstances, including whether or not it is settled before litigation or the case goes to trial.
Hiring a Washington, D.C. Wrongful Death Lawyer
It is best to hire an experienced wrongful death lawyer who can help navigate the complex litigation process while the deceased’s family gets on with moving forward and grieving for their loss. The experienced wrongful death lawyers at Ashcraft & Gerel can help you with your case and fight to recover the compensation to which you may be entitled.