Simply put, a wrongful death lawyer is one who files a civil lawsuit on behalf of the family members of someone whose life ended unexpectedly because of someone else’s negligent or willful acts. Each state has its own laws regarding wrongful death lawsuits and who can file them. For instance, in some states, only the personal representative of the deceased’s estate may initiate such a suit. Other states allow one or more of the deceased’s close family members, such as a spouse, child or parent, to bring the suit themselves. An experienced local wrongful death lawyer can advise you of your state’s wrongful death requirements.
Most wrongful death lawyers are also personal injury attorneys who bring civil suits on behalf of clients injured due to someone else’s negligence or wrongful act(s). Personal injury and wrongful death actions can arise from a wide variety of situations, including the following:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Medical malpractice
- Defective product accidents
- Slips, trips, falls and other premises liability accidents
- Willful wrongful acts or infringement of a right, called torts
- Criminal wrongdoing
Criminal Versus Civil Liability
Keep in mind that the same act(s) can constitute both a crime and civil tort. On the other hand, the state does not need to convict someone of a crime for you to be successful in a wrongful death action against that same person.
Perhaps the most memorable example of this was the case of OJ Simpson and the deaths of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. OJ was acquitted in his criminal trial, i.e., his prosecution for murder. The Brown and Goldman families nevertheless won their subsequent wrongful death lawsuit against OJ, with the jury awarding them $33.5 million in damages.
This brings up another major difference between criminal and civil liability. A criminal court has the authority to send a defendant to prison if the jury convicts him or her, or even take his or her life if it was a capital crime. The only thing a civil court can award, however, is monetary damages.
One more major difference between a criminal prosecution and a civil action for personal injury or wrongful death is the burden of proof borne by the plaintiff. In a criminal prosecution, the plaintiff, i.e., the state, must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In your wrongful death action, however, you, as plaintiff, must only prove that it’s more likely than not that the defendant caused your loved one’s death.