Patience is Key The Length of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Explained

Embarking on the path of a wrongful death lawsuit is a process that demands not only legal expertise but also a considerable measure of patience. Understanding the intricate dynamics that dictate the length of a wrongful death lawsuit is crucial for those navigating the often complex and emotionally charged terrain of seeking compensation for a loved one’s untimely demise. There is very little about litigation of any type that happens quickly.  Although the rules of litigation procedure have been greatly expanded, in theory, to aid parties to evaluate cases and resolve them short of a trial, lawsuits have become significantly more complicated.

Factors That Can Prolong Your Case

The length of a wrongful death lawsuit can vary depending on various factors, such as where one files the case.  Every state court is different.  Every federal court is different.  How many judges are there in the involved jurisdiction?  Does the court have a busy docket or one that is relatively open and uncluttered?  How complicated is the case?  Who is the defendant, and what are the defendant’s resources to defend the case? Who is the defense attorney?  Is the defense attorney one who is amenable to targeting issues that will facilitate case evaluation or is he/she more interested in delay to earn a bigger, hourly fee?

State courts vary wildly.  In urban jurisdictions such as Kansas City or St. Louis, judges may have packed dockets, and older cases generally get priority over newer cases.  Sometimes that results in a logjam that keeps newer, uncomplicated cases from reaching the top of the trial calendar.  In federal court, there are myriad procedures. Although designed to facilitate the quick and easy progress of the lawsuit through the system, they frequently have the opposite effect.

The time to navigate the system can range from one year in uncomplicated, uncrowded courts, to 2 years or more.  In short, the jurisdiction, the judge, the nature of the case, the attorneys on both sides, and the backlog of cases, can all impact the length of time it takes to get your case to trial.  One thing is, however, certain; no one should place expediency above the conscientious handling of the case.

Tasks Pursued in Each Case

Here is a list of tasks that are generally pursued in every wrongful death case, all of which can impact the time it takes for your case to resolve or go to trial:

  1. Investigation Period:

There is a period to gather evidence, collect medical records, and interview witnesses to strengthen the case. This may delay the start of the trial but can sometimes shorten the time of the trial. Before a conscientious wrongful death attorney files a case, they may take time to have the case reviewed by expert witnesses.  Some cases, such as medical malpractice and product liability, requires an expert witness to pursue a wrongful death case before a jury.  Finding the right expert and supplying that expert with all the essentials to provide an informed opinion, takes time.  It is better to have such people in place before an attorney files the case to avoid delays that may slow the time between filing and resolution.

  1. Filing the Lawsuit:

Depending on court availability and completeness of documentation, the filing process can take a few weeks to a few months. Filing the wrongful death lawsuit also involves what is called “service of process.”  Simply stated, the official lawsuit papers must be provided or served to the party the plaintiff is suing.  Under the very best of circumstances, after filing the wrongful death case this takes about 30 days to accomplish. If a defendant is “dodging” service, it can take months.  Once served, the defendant has at least 30 days to “answer” or respond to the allegations. This time is frequently extended by either agreement or the order of the court.  In short, in the first 30 days after filing, there is not much one can do to advance the lawsuit. There are not many things that will hurry the process.

  1. Discovery:

All parties have a right under both federal and state rules to conduct discovery.  This takes several forms, and the time it takes to complete this process is dramatically affected by the complexity of the case and the attorneys involved.  Complex wrongful death lawsuits, involving many experts due to the nature of the allegations or damages, can take a year or more to navigate this process.

Most discovery begins with written discovery in the form of interrogatories, requests for production of documents or other tangible things, or requests for admission.  Both parties can engage in this process.  Interrogatories are written questions sent to the other side, generally seeking basic information. Such as health history, employment history, and witnesses to the accident or incident.  Requests for production seek documents or other tangible information pertinent to the matter at issue. Including design drawings in a product liability case or medical records in a medical malpractice case.  Requests for admissions seek to narrow the contested issues by asking, “Can you admit [such and such].” This initial step, although ongoing throughout the pretrial period, can take several months to complete. Especially depending on whether there are disputes about what can or should be answered.

Depositions are statements provided under oath, taken before a reporter who will record all testimony provided in response to questions from the opposing wrongful death attorney.  Your wrongful death attorney will be present and is also entitled to take depositions from the defendant, independent witnesses, and expert witnesses.  In a car collision case, there may be only a handful of depositions, but in a product liability action involving legions of engineers, accountants, and independent witnesses, dozens of depositions can be taken.  Hence, depending on the complexity of the case, concluding depositions can take months.

  1. Settlement negotiations:

Often, wrongful death cases settle before reaching trial. The length of the wrongful death lawsuit settlement negotiations can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Many courts, both federal and state, enter orders compelling the parties to engage in “mediation”. Mediation is the process of formalized settlement discussions directed by an impartial mediator.  Sometimes, delays in the progress of the case occur so that mediation can take place at the order of a judge. Though, mediation is generally designed to speed up the case resolution process.

While some courts, Missouri federal courts for instance, require an “early assessment” of the merits of a case and potential early resolution, they may restrict the litigants from actively pursuing discovery during this process. The time it takes to work through litigation is sped up if the case resolves. If it does not settle during this early assessment and the court does not allow discovery to progress, this delays the ultimate resolution of the case.

  1. Trial:

If the case goes to trial, the trial can last several days to several weeks. After the trial, it can take weeks or months for the judge to issue a verdict. Either party can appeal the outcome.  This is not a retrial of the case, but rather focuses on errors the trial judge may have committed during the progress of the case.  An appeal can take a year or more to resolve.

A Wrongful Death Attorney Can Help

It can be challenging to provide a specific timeline for the length of wrongful death lawsuit, based on all the factors. A wrongful death attorney can assist you on the specific circumstances of your case and the court system.  Stand firm.  Defendants often try to leverage a lesser settlement based on the injured or damaged party’s impatience to resolve the case.