Proving Wrongful Death Key Elements and Legal Strategies

Proving wrongful death is a legal endeavor that requires a meticulous and comprehensive approach. When a life is tragically cut short due to the negligence, misconduct, or intentional actions of another, establishing the grounds for a wrongful death claim becomes a crucial pursuit. Navigating this process demands a thorough understanding of the law, a commitment to gathering compelling evidence, and an unwavering pursuit of compensation for those left behind.

Proving Damages in a Wrongful Death Case

State statutes govern wrongful death cases. These statutes specifically define who can bring the lawsuit and what damages are compensable.

The survivors of the victim must prove that the defendant had a legal obligation to act in a safe and responsible manner. In some cases, a defective product may cause death. In such cases, the survivors of the decedent must prove that the product was defective and unreasonably dangerous.  Some key elements needed to establish a wrongful death claim include:

  1. Duty of Care:

The plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a legal obligation to act in a safe and responsible manner. Therefore, the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased individual. Not everyone has a duty to protect an individual who is ultimately injured or killed.  For example, absent extreme circumstances, the passenger in a vehicle has no duty to protect other individuals, other drivers on the road or passengers in the same car, from the negligent operation of the vehicle by the driver.

  1. Breach of Duty:

The defendant’s actions (or inaction) must not have met the standard of care expected in the situation. The “standard of care” is generally negligence, meaning that degree of care an ordinarily careful person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.  For motor vehicular collisions, negligence is enhanced and defined as “the highest degree of care.”  Although negligence is difficult to define, people can view it as a “mistake” that results in some injury or damages to the plaintiff.

  1. Causation:

The defendant’s actions or lack of action must be proven to have been a substantial factor in the death. Frequently, it is easier to prove negligence than to prove causation.  An injury or damage must directly flow from the negligent event.  If someone is in a car collision and suffers a fracture in a leg that was previously uninjured, causation is easy to prove.  But what if the person suffers a back injury and had been to the doctor the week before complaining of the same symptoms?  What if the person had not had recent complaints, but had voiced back problems five years before?  What if the back problems began at or about the time of the car collision, but there was a fall that happened within a few days or hours of the collision? The injured or damaged party has the “burden of proof” to demonstrate that his/her injuries are more likely than not, caused or contributed by the harmful event.

In the context of wrongful death, what if a person with a terminal illness is killed in a collision?  Causation is generally proved when the negligent event directly results in death.  So, if a terminally ill person dies in a car collision, while there may be some debate about the individual’s life expectancy and how long his loved ones may have enjoyed his continued love and well-being, the car collision was the direct cause of death.

  1. Damages:

Wrongful death cases often involve unique damages that non-fatal injury accidents do not have. The damages are generally those suffered by the decedent’s survivors. Although, Missouri recognizes that the survivors can recover for the decedent’s damages suffered between the onset of the injury and death. Such as the decedent’s pain and suffering if he or she lingered for hours, days or weeks before passing.  Other damages include funeral expenses, last medical expenses, or a lifetime of a loss of relationship with the decedent. The statue also defines such damages. §537.090 R.S.Mo. In Missouri, such damages include the loss of the comfort, services, care, and support of the decedent.  Kansas recognizes similar damages, although Kansas divides such losses into either “economic” or “non-economic” losses.  Among the recoverable categories of damages for a Kansas wrongful death plaintiff are:

    1. Mental anguish
    2. Suffering or bereavement
    3. Loss of society, companionship, comfort, or protection
    4. Loss of marital care, attention, advice, or counsel
    5. Loss of filial care or attention
    6. Loss of parental care, training, guidance, or education

Limits on Damages

Missouri does not recognize any limitations on damages in wrongful death cases, except matters involving medical negligence.  Kansas, on the other hand, limits recovery in wrongful death cases to a maximum of $250,000 for “non-economic” damages.  There are no limits on provable “economic” damages.  Among those elements of damage that Kansas recognizes as economic in nature are funeral expenses, last medical expenses, lost income or financial support, or other out-of-pocket costs.  Kansas recognizes some damages as “economic” even they assign if no particular value to the element. The jury determine the value of such damages as loss of the decedent’s services, care, guidance, attention, advice, and protection based on their understanding and discretion.

To read more about damages, check out our blog “What Damages are Allowed in a Wrongful Death Case?”

  1. Legal Standing:

In both Kansas and Missouri, not just anyone is entitled to pursue a claim of wrongful death. Generally, surviving spouses, children, and either natural or adoptive parents are entitled to pursue such a claim.  When there are no survivors in this group of individuals, siblings can sometimes pursue such a claim.  You must be an eligible party to bring a wrongful death claim according to the state law. People within the class of permitted individuals are allowed to “intervene” in a case even if they were not the original parties filing the lawsuit.  The parties pursuing the lawsuit are deemed the representatives of the entire class of entitled individuals.  Ultimately, if the case is successful, and absent an agreement between all eligible parties, the judge will divide the proceeds of judgment or settlement among all entitled parties.

How an Attorney Can Help

Wrongful death attorneys can help guide you through the complexities of proving wrongful death. Attorneys can gather evidence to build you a strong case, such as:

  • Witness testimonies, including any necessary support from experts who may address the injuries suffered and the cause of death. Attorneys may also retain other experts to prove life expectancy, lost earnings potential, the economic value of loss of services provided to the household and survivors, or to prove the negligence or wrongdoing of the responsible party.
  • Medical records Accident reports and investigation findings
  • Photographs, videos, other documentation of the accident or incident, or other exhibits labeled “demonstrative” that help illustrate the issues in the case and make things easier for the jury to understand and evaluate.
  • Financial records to demonstrate the extent of economic damage. At times, attorneys use anecdotal testimony to prove how the decedent contributed to the well-being of the household with tasks, chores, or activities that have direct economic value. Such as lawn care, handyman services, cooking, cleaning, transportation, or other daily support
  • Any other relevant evidence that supports your claim

Wrongful death cases are a special blend of issues and damages.  They are unique and differ in many respects from state to state.  While wrongful death can arise under nearly any situation that may in other circumstances result in injury, not death, only attorneys experienced and familiar with the details of wrongful death should pursue proving wrongful death cases. Contact our office to speak with one of our experienced wrongful death attorneys.