Understanding Unlawful Death: What It Is and What You Need to Know

There comes a time for each of us to take our leave of the stage, exiting left. Some deaths mark the end of a long life lived well. Yet some deaths are the result of catastrophic errors, careless mistakes, or even intentionally unlawful conduct – robbing a person of the life they had left to live. 

In legal terms, these deaths are sometimes called unlawful deaths or wrongful deaths, and depending on the circumstances of the person’s passing, they can form the basis of an important lawsuit for survivors of a harrowing crime or episode of misconduct, or the estate of the recently deceased.

A wrongful death incorporates any death caused advertently or inadvertently by another person, through negligence, omission, a wrongful act, or even murder. Some wrongful deaths result in a murder or manslaughter charge. Others may also result in civil litigation. 

In most cases, wrongful death lawsuits can give a family a chance to seek financial compensation for some of the damage caused by their loved one’s death at the hands of an individual or a legal entity, such as a corporation. 

Understanding Unlawful Death Claims

At the heart of what constitutes wrongful death lie fault and legal responsibility. 

For example, an employer has a legal responsibility to ensure the reasonable safety of their employee. Certain jobs are associated with a certain level of risk, such that if an employee loses their life despite the employer’s best precautions and proper execution of all safety measures, it can be hard to argue that the employer was at fault. 

Furthermore, citizens must uphold the law. Committing a crime that causes another person’s death can result in a wrongful death claim. 

For a wrongful death lawsuit to reach a favorable conclusion for the plaintiff, they must prove that someone – an individual or an entity – failed to uphold their duty or acted criminally, causing another person’s death. They must also prove that whoever this person or entity is, their actions were the direct cause of death. And finally, they must prove that they suffered damages due to this death. 

Damages are important, and they can be defined in several different ways. For one, there are financial damages. Funerary and burial costs are also a part of the picture.

Damages to the relatives and loved ones of a deceased as a result of their sudden death are part of the wrongful death lawsuit. If the deceased initially survived the event, but died soon thereafter (as a direct result of the defendant’s actions), the lawsuit may instead focus on the deceased’s pain and suffering, in a survival action lawsuit (based on survival law). 

If the event resulted in a prolonged state of injury that led to death, then there are medical bills to consider. If the deceased was still employed or working, then the loss of their future income also qualifies as substantial financial damages. 

It is often about much more than just the financial impact, however. Emotional damages represent a significant portion of the compensation for a wrongful death claim, covering everything from the loss of a beloved partner to emotional distress of their failed treatment and death, as well as the pain and suffering they went through before dying. 

Types of Wrongful Death

Wrongful death is usually either intentional or unintentional. There is a third category specifically for medical malpractice, which is handled in its own way due to the responsibilities that come with a medical license. 

In cases of medical malpractice, a doctor or healthcare provider failed to provide care to the standard that is required of them as a medical professional. The plaintiff must find a way to prove that incompetence or negligence resulted in a wrongful death. 

Wrongful Death Lawsuit vs. Criminal Homicide

All wrongful death claims are civil, rather than criminal. Meaning, someone tried and convicted of murder or manslaughter may also be sued for wrongful death. They are separate processes but may be applied to the same event. 

Because wrongful death claims are not criminal cases, a lower standard of proof is required for a judgment. Charges like murder must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A wrongful death case may be upheld on the basis of a preponderance of evidence, meaning the facts of the case prove that there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the claim is true. 

How is a Wrongful Death Case Built?

As with any other kind of litigation, the burden of proof is with the plaintiff. They must bring facts to the table that prove liability in the wrongful death of the deceased, through negligence or criminal conduct. 

The details differ from state to state. Both wrongful death cases and survival actions are based on statutory law, so it’s important to get your information and legal advice from someone with experience handling wrongful death claims in your home state. However, the general standard for proof is the same across the US: the claim must be “likely true.” Again, four things must be proven: 

  1. The accused individual or entity had a responsibility of care towards the deceased. 
  2. They failed to uphold that responsibility. 
  3. Their failure resulted in fatality. 
  4. The deceased or their beneficiaries suffered damages as a result. 

Most wrongful death cases never make it to court. Instead, they usually center around negotiations made between lawyers and insurance companies representing the defendant. The result is a settlement. However, if an agreement cannot be made, then the matter is taken to court, where final compensation is awarded on a case-by-case basis. 

Unlike criminal homicide, there is a statute of limitations on wrongful death claims – they must be filed within two years of the date of death, or two years from the time you found out about the medical malpractice that caused the fatality. 


Estimates for wrongful death payouts are almost impossible – they range from thousands to millions of dollars, depending on the circumstances of the case. Insurance companies specialize in scouring these cases for data points, comparing them, and negotiating settlements that minimize their losses. If you wish to pursue a wrongful death claim, then seeking the services of an experienced law firm is crucial.

Unlawful Death: What You Need to Know - Werner Law

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