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How to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

You may have heard about recent high-profile lawsuits filed in civil court following a homicide or wrongful death. If you have lost a loved one due to the negligent or intentional act of another person, your family may have the option of filing a wrongful death suit. This article provides a basic overview about how to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A wrongful death lawsuit can be filed when a person dies as the result of the negligence or wrongful act of another person. In the case of an intentional or negligent homicide, the prosecutor may bring charges and commence a criminal trial against the responsible party. However, the family of the decedent—a term for the person who died—also may have a civil remedy in filing a wrongful death lawsuit against a person, institution, or corporation responsible for the death.

The family of the decedent can recover a variety of different damages. This includes the decedent's medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering before death. A jury can also award damages in a wrongful death lawsuit for the family's loss of financial support from the decedent, and the loss of the decedent's companionship.

Can You File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

An important first consideration is if you're the person authorized by your state's statute to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Each state has its own laws designating who can file such a lawsuit. In some states, the decedent's surviving spouse, children, parents, siblings, or other relatives are authorized to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

However, in other states, only the personal representative or executor of the decedent's estate is allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. It's important to first determine your state's laws on this issue. If you personally aren't allowed by law to file this sort of case, then it may be someone else's responsibility to do so.

Understanding Statutes of Limitation

Another important initial step is to learn your state's statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits. Each state has implemented time limits that restrict when a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed. For example:

  • In California, the wrongful death statute of limitations is 2 years.
  • In Montana, the statute of limitations is 3 years.
  • In Florida, the statute of limitations is 2 years from the date of death.

In some circumstances, the statute of limitations will begin to run as of the date of death. In other situations, the date will begin to run upon the "discovery of harm." You can use FindLaw's state-specific materials to determine the statute of limitations in your state. If the statute of limitations as defined by your state's laws has run, then unfortunately you will be barred from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Commencing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

If you have determined that you're authorized to file a wrongful death lawsuit, and are within your state's statute of limitations for doing so, the next step is to file documents to commence the civil lawsuit. Typically, the first document filed in a civil case is a complaint or petition. This document must provide the defendant with notice of the factual and legal grounds for the case. Along with the petition, you must file a summons, which is a document notifying the defendant that he is being sued, and specifying where the lawsuit will be heard.

After the lawsuit has been filed, the relevant documents must be provided to all defendants. This legal procedure is known as "service of process" and puts the defendants on official notice of the lawsuit. Each state, and in some circumstances each county, has particular rules about proper methods of service of process.

Have Your Wrongful Death Claim Reviewed for Free

The procedure described above can be difficult to navigate. Filing and serving initial pleadings is only the first step in the process. The lifespan of a lawsuit—which can be multiple years—involves many nuanced steps which can be challenging for a non-lawyer. For this reason, it's a good idea to speak with an experienced wrongful death attorney about your case before filing. Meet with an experienced attorney for your free wrongful death case evaluation.

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