Losing someone you love because of a fatal accident multiplies the normal pain and hurdles associated with death. While no amount of money will ever replace a loved one, it can help relieve emotional suffering and financial burdens, such as funeral costs and medical bills. Wrongful death is the type of civil lawsuit filed by the family of a person who died due to the negligent, wrongful or intentional act of another person or entity, in order to recover their losses.
In times of grief, it is understandable why a family would wait to move forward with legal action. However, if negligence is a possible cause for the death, the earlier it can be investigated by an experienced wrongful death attorney, the better. It is critical early in a case to locate and speak to witnesses, collect important documents, contact the responsible party to make a request for evidence, and retain experts who can assist in determining the cause of an event and discovering additional evidence.
The Padberg, Corrigan & Appelbaum law firm is made up of St. Louis wrongful death attorneys dedicated to the goal of recovering maximum compensation for family members. The firm has successfully litigated and settled hundreds of wrongful death cases.
Notable Wrongful Death Cases
For an 18-year old boy who died in a fire after a motor vehicle accident as a result of a product defect in the motor vehicle in which he was a passenger.
For the wrongful death of two males who were electrocuted while moving a grain auger that struck a telephone line. The verdict was awarded to the families in St. Louis city courts.
For the deaths of an 86-year old woman and a 64-year old woman who died when their vehicle was struck by a piece of heavy equipment (bulldozer) that fell off of a tractor trailer on Highway D in St. Charles County, MO.
Can I File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Wrongful death laws in Missouri are somewhat unique because the state does not permit the estate of the deceased to file a claim. Missouri authorizes three different “classes” of individuals to bring a case, and any one person can file on behalf of all members in that class. If there are no living individuals in a class, then permission to file a claim extends to the subsequent class:
- Class I: spouse, children and parents of the deceased
- Class II: siblings of the deceased and / or their descendants
- Class III: plaintiff ad litem
Illinois wrongful death claims are authorized by the estate of the deceased person, and the court appoints a family member as the personal representative to administer the proceedings. In most cases this includes the spouse, children, parent, or “next of kin” blood relatives who would have taken the decedent’s property by intestacy. Exceptions to this rule do apply if there is not a surviving spouse or next of kin.
How are Settlement and Judgment Proceeds Distributed?
When a wrongful death case is filed in Missouri, every person of the class that brought the claim is entitled to the settlement, regardless of their involvement in the lawsuit. In most cases the survivors agree on the distribution of the settlement proceeds. In situations where members of the class cannot agree, the decision of how to divide the proceeds is left to the court after hearing evidence.
If a wrongful death case is filed in Illinois, the money that is awarded in the lawsuit is typically distributed to the legal heirs or beneficiaries of the victim.
What Parties Are Liable for a Wrongful Death?
Any person, corporation or organization that causes the death of another person can be liable. For example, the driver of a car responsible for an accident, the healthcare professional who administered a wrong medicine, and the corporation that produced a defective product, can all be liable if their negligence resulted in death.
What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death in Missouri and Illinois?
There are time limits by which a case may be filed, called statue of limitations. In Missouri, a wrongful death lawsuit must be brought within three years from the date of death. The three years applies even when the death is caused by something with a lesser statue of limitations, such as medical malpractice.
In Illinois, the statue of limitations for a wrongful death claim is always two years from the date of death.
How Long Does a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Take?
Most wrongful death cases that don’t settle take on average between 18 and 24 months from start to finish. A case begins with the filing of a petition with the court and serving it to the parties being sued. The case then enters a phase called discovery, during which time the parties take depositions, exchange requests for information and subpoena witnesses. At Padberg, Corrigan & Appelbaum, clients typically do not participate in most of the activities in the discovery phase, but will likely be required to provide a deposition. This phase ends when the case is assigned to trial by the court. Following a verdict, the losing party can file an appeal, extending the case another 12 to 18 months.
How Much Is My Wrongful Death Claim Worth?
The nature and extent of a surviving family’s damages is the leading factor that determines a wrongful death settlement or judgment amount. Damages include those that can be precisely measured, for example medical bills, funeral expenses and lost income, as well as damages that do not have a direct monetary value, such as emotional trauma, loss of spousal companionship and loss of parental guidance or support. The wrongful death statute also permits the survivors to sue for the conscious pain and suffering the deceased experienced while he or she was alive.
Will My Case Settle or Go to Trial?
It is likely a wrongful death claim will go to a jury trial if there are conflicting facts between both parties. On the contrary, clear evidence that supports liability and negligence on the other party increases the chance of a settlement. Other influencing factors are the plaintiff attorney’s history of success, probability of the jury empathizing with the client, and the perceived impression of the defendant. The venue, or location where a case is filed, also plays a role. Jurors are known to give verdicts favoring victims in more liberal areas, thus increasing the chances of settlement. A wrongful death attorney can counsel clients on the relative possibilities of settling given the facts of their individual case.
What Documents Should I Save?
It can be easy to overlook or lose key evidence in a wrongful death case over time, which is why the early location and preservation of important documents is vital for successful litigation. A lawyer can best advise on what items to save and what to discard based on the specific details of your case. Examples include:
- Medical Bills and Records
- Police Reports
- Communications with Insurance Companies or Investigating Agencies
- Explanation of Benefit Forms
- Photographs of Damaged Vehicles or Property
- Photographs of Casts or Other Medical Devices
- Text Messages
- Cell Phone Bills
- Social Media Postings
If a Family Member Died at Work, is it Worker’s Compensation or a Wrongful Death Case?
A workplace injury can be both a workers’ compensation action and a wrongful death case. Although the law prohibits an employee or employee’s family from suing the employer directly, a suit can also be filed against a non-employer whose negligence contributed to the death. This is known as a third party action, and can be filed in addition to worker’s compensation to recover all damages allowable by wrongful death law.
What is The Difference Between Wrongful Death and Criminal Cases?
Both a criminal case and a wrongful death case can arise from the same incident and may take place simultaneously. However, they are two separate lawsuits and the processes are independent of each other. Wrongful death is a civil suit filed by the family of a deceased victim and the liability of a person or entity at fault is penalized through monetary compensation. On the other hand, the government brings a criminal case against a person for an illegal act that caused a death, and the guilt is punishable by jail, probation, fines or other penalties.
Is the Loss of an Unborn Child a Wrongful Death Claim?
Under Missouri law, a fetus is a living person and the death of an unborn child of any gestational age is actionable as a wrongful death case. The jury ultimately determines the value of the lost child based on evidence.
How Much Does a Wrongful Death Case Cost the Family?
Padberg, Corrigan & Appelbaum works with clients on a contingency fee basis, which means a percentage of the settlement or judgment that the client receives is paid to the firm. The attorneys pay the upfront litigation costs to pursue the case, including experts and investigations. The client does not expend any sums for attorney’s fees or costs unless we recover money for him or her, in which case the costs are repaid by the client from the settlement.