Wrongful death, as defined by Alabama Law, is a death that is caused by the wrongful act, omission, or negligence or another. In Alabama, the estate of the deceased person may bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the party at fault in any case that the deceased person would have been entitled to bring a personal injury suit if he or she had lived. A wrongful death claim is essentially a personal injury claim in which the deceased person is incapable of pursuing damages; it is therefore is taken on by the deceased person’s estate. Any damages recovered are paid to the heirs of the deceased.
Known as the Homicide Act, Alabama law differs greatly from other states in the way in which damages are awarded in a wrongful death claim. Under Alabama law, only punitive damages may be awarded, which are intended to punish the party responsible for the death for their negligence. Compensatory damages cannot be recovered in a wrongful death suit, providing some measure of justice to the families of the deceased party.
Damages in an Alabama Wrongful Death Case
The “damages,” or compensation laws, determining how much a family can receive in a successful wrongful death claim are unique in Alabama. While most states calculate compensation based on the circumstances of the incident, the age of the deceased person, his or her lost wages and the value of lost services, a family’s expenses, and many other factors, Alabama does not permit plaintiffs to recover compensatory damages. Instead, a wrongful death claim may only garner punitive damages.
Punitive damages are those that serve to punish the defendant’s wrongdoing. The goal of punitive damages is to deter other parties from committing similar actions of negligence in the future. The amount a family might recover in punitive damages varies according to the seriousness of the crime. Any recovered award will go directly to the decedent’s heirs, not to the estate. Alabama courts place a cap on the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff can receive: $1,500,000 in wrongful death claims.
Alabama also limits the amount a plaintiff can receive in claims against government entities. Going up against a public hospital for wrongful death, for example, might involve this damage cap. Government personal injury lawsuits cannot result in more than $100,000 in compensation for plaintiffs. The courts will not deviate from this damage cap in any circumstances. Hiring a lawyer is the best way to maximize your damages for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Who Gets the Money?
Alabama law says that the heirs at law are the beneficiaries of any monies recovered. As noted above, this means that any settlement or jury verdict does not go into the estate of the deceased. Rather, the monies are awarded to the next of kin, regardless of whether there was a will or not.
Proving Wrongful Death
The law unfortunately does not automatically award families after the preventable or negligence-related death of a loved one. Instead, a plaintiff must prove a wrongful death claim to receive punitive damages for the loss of a loved one’s life in Alabama. Proving a claim can be difficult without help from an attorney. Three general elements of proof must be present for a plaintiff to win a wrongful death claim in Alabama:
- Evidence of duty of care. The plaintiff must show that the defendant owed the deceased person a duty of care at the time of the fatality. A physician, for example, has a duty to treat patients with reasonable skill and care.
- Breach of duty of care. The plaintiff must then have proof the defendant somehow breached his or her duty of care, through an act of negligence, misconduct, or willful intent to harm.
- Causation between the breach and the death. Finally, the plaintiff must show a proximate cause between the defendant’s breach of duty and the loved one’s death. For example, the defendant might not be liable for the death if a third party caused it. Causation can also be shown by establishing any connection between the negligent breach of duty and the death. Alabama case law has gone so far as to say that a wrongful death claim can be brought by showing that the conduct hastened or contributed to the death.
Alabama plaintiffs might encounter additional burdens of proof since they are fighting only for punitive damages in wrongful death claims. The courts might require evidence that the defendant acted with particular maliciousness, gross negligence, or conscious intent to harm. Ask a lawyer to represent you instead of taking on the burden of proof alone.
What Is a Survival Action?
A survival action is not the same as a wrongful death action in Alabama. Alabama Statute §6-5-462 gives surviving family members the right to survival action in very limited circumstances. Family members can proceed with an implied or express contract claim whether or not the decedent filed one prior to death. Family members can also continue with personal injury claims the decedent filed prior to passing, except for injuries to reputation. Someone could also bring a survival action if the at-fault party is deceased. The decedent’s estate will act as the defendant.
A claim that will not survive a deceased family member is a personal injury claim not filed until the individual passes away. Prompt filing prior to death is necessary for this type of survival action – a significant hole in Alabama’s civil laws. Still, a family may still be eligible to file a wrongful death claim on behalf of the decedent’s estate after the date of death. Consult with an attorney for more information about Alabama’s complex survival action laws.
Types of Wrongful Death Cases
Wrongful deaths can occur in many ways:
- Car and truck accidents
- Bicycle and pedestrian accidents
- Prescription drugs deaths
- Hospital errors
- Accidental slip and falls
- On the job accidents
- Motorcycle Accidents
- Malfunctioning vehicles
- Product liability
- Nursing home negligence
- Medical malpractice
- Exposure to toxic substances
- Fires and explosions
- Many other instances where someone caused the death of another by acting negligently or carelessly.
Why to Pursue a Wrongful Death Claim?
When you’ve lost a loved one, nothing can make it right, but someone can often be made to pay. Although compensatory damages will not be awarded in an Alabama wrongful death claim, a measure of justice can be achieved by seeking punitive damages against those whose negligent, careless, or deliberate act caused a wrongful death. In cases of medical malpractice, drunk driving, malfunctioning products, and more, it is important to take action against those who have negligently caused a wrongful death to prevent similar accidents from happening again. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the wrongdoer, and such punishment is intended to deter future negligent actions from occurring, which contributes to an overall more just society. Although wrongful death claims are civil actions, punitive damages awarded against the party at fault have severe consequences for the individual, medical provider, corporation, etc., and are an important part of our justice system.
Statute of Limitations on a Wrongful Death Claim
In Alabama, the time the deceased person’s estate has to file a wrongful death claim is two years after the death. If the wrongful death claim is being filed against a city, a notice of claim must be filed prior to filing the lawsuit, and this must be done within six months of the death. If the claim is being filed against a county, a notice of claim must be filed within one year of the death and prior to filing the lawsuit. Because there are strict statutes of limitations on wrongful death suits, it is critical that you contact an experienced personal injury attorney who has a proven success rate with these claims, and who has the specialized knowledge of Alabama’s wrongful death statute.
Why Choose Drake Law to Represent Your Family?
The attorneys at the Drake law firm have the education, knowledge, and expertise necessary to effectively pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. As a small law firm dedicated exclusively to personal injury law, the attorneys are skilled professionals who provide individualized attention to each and every case and client they take on. We are passionate about bringing justice to those wronged by another party’s negligent actions and understand how important it is to pursue such cases. If you or someone you loved has been affected by the loss of a family member due to the negligence or wrongdoing of another, call Drake Law Firm for a free consultation today, and put our 30 years of total experience to work for you.