Wrongful Death Claims – The Basics

The goal of any personal injury lawsuit is to obtain compensation for the plaintiff — a monetary award or settlement — so that he or she is “made whole” for the damages caused by the injuries. Usually the plaintiff is the injured person, so the damages are those directly suffered by the plaintiff – for example, medical expenses paid by the injured person, pain and suffering endured by the injured person and income lost by the injured person.

But what happens if the injured person dies because of the accident caused by the defendant’s negligence or misconduct? In the absence of the injured person, who can file a lawsuit and for what damages?

A claim for wrongful death is the law’s answer to this problem. It allows the deceased victim’s estate and his or her family members to bring a lawsuit for the decedent’s damages AND the damages suffered by the family. Contact a skilled Phoenix injury lawyer if you need help with your case.

Who can claim damages?

In Arizona, wrongful death claims can be brought by the deceased victim’s surviving spouse, children or parents, and by an executor or personal representative on behalf of the victim’s estate.

What damages are recoverable?

Wrongful death damages can be thought of as falling into 2 categories. The first category compensates the decedent’s estate for the damages the victim suffered, including:

  • Funeral/burial expenses;
  • Medical expenses incurred prior to death;
  • Income lost prior to death;
  • Lost future income (based on the idea that the victim would have accumulated more assets and left a larger estate if he or she had survived);
  • Property damaged in the incident causing his or her death (if the incident were a car accident, for example, the damaged property would be a vehicle); and
  • Pain and suffering endured before death.

The second category compensates family members for the damages THEY suffer from the victim’s untimely death, including:

  • The lost value of household services the victim performed;
  • The loss of care, companionship, and guidance; and
  • Pain and suffering (grief, sorrow, shock).

If the family members paid for all or some of the victim’s expenses arising from the accident (medical bills, funeral expenses), claims for those damages would be brought by the family members, not the estate.

What about punitive damages?

Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for particularly egregious actions and to deter others from committing similar misconduct. They can be awarded in a wrongful death case without regard to the economic damages claimed by the plaintiffs, but the standard for obtaining punitive damages under Arizona law is strict.

As a general rule, the defendant’s conduct must be outrageous and reckless to support a claim for punitive damages. In other words, the defendant’s behavior must be worse than mere carelessness or inattention. Actions that seem more conscious or intentional are more likely to meet the test for punitive damages — like driving a car when you know the brakes are defective or repeatedly driving when severely intoxicated.

Are there caps or limits on damages?

Some states have laws that place limits or caps on the damages a plaintiff can receive in a personal injury lawsuit, but Article 2, Section 31 of the Arizona Constitution provides that no such law is permitted in Arizona.

If a family member has died because of a car, truck or motorcycle accident in Phoenix or elsewhere in the state, an injury lawyer at Hirsch & Lyon can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call any of our offices to schedule a free consultation.