What is Wrongful Death?

By James Merritt, Jr., Attorney at Law

Wrongful death is defined under North Carolina statute as the death of a person due to the “wrongful act, neglect or default” of another party. While many of these wrongful death cases will result in felony charges against the negligent party, the law also permits the legal representative of the deceased party to file a civil suit on their behalf to recover damages.

It is common to see wrongful death claims filed in auto accidents where negligence was a factor (for instance, DWI cases), premises liability, medical malpractice, and workers’ compensation cases. In North Carolina, claimants may recover damages as listed below:

  • Medical expenses related to the injury resulting in death;
  • Funeral expenses for the deceased person;
  • Compensation for the pain and suffering of the deceased;
  • A monetary award of the present value of future income that would have been earned by the deceased person; certain protection, care and services assistance; and an estimated value for loss of future companionship;
  • Punitive damages, if allowed by law in this instance;

Depending on the specific situation, not all damages may be applicable. As an example, if your loved one was killed instantly in an auto accident, it is unlikely that monetary damages for pain and suffering would be awarded. On the other hand, if the injured party survived for several weeks and then died as a result of the injuries sustained in the accident, damages for pain and suffering could be awarded.

The claimant may be entitled to the net present value of future wages, benefits, etc.  that the deceased would have earned over the course of his or her lifetime. A monetary value may also be awarded under the “protection, care and services” clause that would cover things like running the household, meal preparation, yard care, and child care – essentially assigning an economic value to the tasks the deceased would have been available to handle if he or she had not died. In addition, while sometimes difficult to calculate what the loss of a loved one means to the family, a claim for compensatory damages is intended to reimburse the survivors for the loss of “society, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice of the decedent to the persons entitled to the damages recovered.”

Likewise, punitive damages would only be applicable in certain situations. As the name suggests, punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer. A claim for punitive damages must show “clear and convincing proof” of “malice or willful or wanton conduct” on the part of the defendant in the case. Punitive damage claims are capped under North Carolina law based on a value of 3 times the compensatory damages in the case or $250,000, whichever is less.

Immediately after the unexpected death of a loved one, especially in an accident, the family may be in shock and simply trying to survive day to day. Unfortunately, when the medical bills and funeral expenses begin to add up, combined with the potential loss of income from the deceased, reality can hit hard. If a loved one was killed as the result of another’s wrongdoing or negligence, we recommend that you speak to a wrongful death attorney about the specifics of your situation.

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