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Arizona is one of the many states with legislation in place to provide recourse to family members who have lost a loved one to wrongful death. A wrongful death lawsuit is filed through the civil court systems, and there are a number of factors that determine eligibility for compensation as well as how a lawsuit can be filed. For those who’ve lost a loved one to a tragic accident, the party responsible for the death could be held liable for any damages and expenses. These legal responsibilities are determined by a lawsuit.

What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

A wrongful death suit is a type of personal injury suit. A claim exists if an individual dies on account of either negligence or the willful intent of another individual. In Arizona, there is the implication that intentional harm or the lack of acting with reasonable care and responsibility created the conditions that led to the death of another.

Qualifications of Wrongful Death

Under Section 12-611 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, wrongful death is defined as an incident where there would be sufficient evidence for the individual to file a personal injury suit against another party, had the victim of the incident not died. The offending or responsible party can be taken to court and held liable for damages whether the situation involving the death was neglect, a wrongful act, or default. Since the individual is deceased, the law allows another individual to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim rather than the victim filing a personal injury claim.

Difference Between Unintentional and Intentional Death Claims

With a wrongful death claim, the act that led to the death could be categorized as either intentional or unintentional. The negligent party could have directly acted and intentionally hurt another person, leading to the death of the victim. This is considered intentional.

However, death could also be unintentional, such as if a neighbor fails to put a fence around a pool and a child wanders into the yard and drowns. This is an act of negligence and, presumably, had no malicious intent.

Difference Between Murder and Intentional Wrongful Death Claim

When an individual commits a violent act against another that leads to death, it could look like murder. Although wrongful death and murder both lead to the death of an individual, the difference is that the former is a civil suit brought on by survivors for financial restitution while the latter is a case brought by criminal prosecutors with the intent of incarceration or other consequences. Different court systems handle these cases, and charges in one court may not lead to a case in the other.

In the example of the pool incident, the owner of the pool could be charged with wrongful death but not with murder charge. Because Arizona has legislation for pool owners, however, a criminal charge could be brought if the pool owner was not in compliance with the law.

What Is the Burden of Proof in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Civil cases require a different burden of proof when compared to civil cases. In a wrongful death, negligence is the leading factor that must be proved. The court defines negligence as an individual acting in such a way that was careless and causes the death or injury of another person. Four elements must be present for a negligence case.

1. Duty

The primary claim is to show that the defendant had responsibility for a legal duty of care. These are the reasonable obligations that one person has to another to keep them from harm. Within the medical field, this is a healthcare professional’s legal duty to provide care to the best of their ability. Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe, danger-free workplace for their employees. Motorists have a legal responsibility to operate their cars safely and in a manner that prevents accidents.

2. Breach

Once the legal duty of care and responsibility is established, a wrongful death lawsuit must show that there was an unintentional or intentional breach of this duty. A breach is defined as an individual not doing, or doing, something that a reasonable, practical individual would or wouldn’t do if placed in the same situation. The legal term “reasonably prudent” is used to define how the average person would be expected to act. By not doing what a normal person would in the same situation, negative consequences were the outcome of the action or inaction of the individual.

A breach of duty could be failing to put the required fence around a pool or running a red light. In addition to the duty to obey government rules and laws, there is also the duty to exercise care and concern for the well-being of others. Physicians are required to provide care to the best of their abilities, and a mistake in a diagnosis or unintentional delay in treatment, while not a criminal legal action, can be considered a breach of duty and qualify as medical malpractice.

3. Causation

Once it’s been shown that a defendant breached their legal duty, there needs to be a connection between the wrongful death and the individual’s negligence. This is called causation. An incident involving negligence that doesn’t end up with serious injuries or death can’t be prosecuted. If the child who fell into the neighbor’s pool was immediately pulled out by the pool’s owner and there were no injuries, a case can’t be brought on grounds of negligence.

Additionally, the case must be made that the defendant had a reasonable understanding of the potential consequences surrounding their negligence. With the pool example, the neighbor should have reasonably assumed the risk of accidental drowning without a protective barrier keeping unsupervised children from accessing the pool. If a child drowns, the individual acted negligently in failing to put up a fence. However, liability in accidents that aren’t foreseeable might not be charged against an individual.

4. Damages

The final element of a wrongful death lawsuit is the damages awarded to the party bringing suit. The first three elements are used to establish the liability of an individual for wrongful death, while the fourth factor determines the extent of the compensation for the incident. While a settlement could be reached between the parties and their respective insurance companies, cases that end up in court are generally litigated toward a specific amount.

Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

The state of Arizona puts a limit on who is eligible to file a wrongful death suit. Those who can bring a claim include:

  • Surviving children of the deceased
  • Surviving spouse of the deceased
  • Surviving guardian or parent of the deceased
  • The personal representative of the deceased’s estate, parent, spouse, or guardian

There are also some limitations on who can be named in a wrongful death claim. Government entities often have sovereign immunity, which means there are limited situations (expressly established by the government) where a suit can be brought. However, it is possible through the Arizona Tort Claims Act to file personal injury and premises liability lawsuits against the state, though there are claims procedures and eligibility situations that apply.

Who Is Awarded the Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

In a wrongful death suit, the claim can be brought by either the decedent estate or by the survivors of the deceased. A survival action claim is brought by the survivors, and it’s a wrongful death claim when brought by the estate.

Under a wrongful death claim, the estate is awarded the damages. The beneficiaries of the estate receive whatever is awarded, typically with those who suffered the most financially being awarded the funds. Under a survival action, the survivors receive funds that would have been available if the individual hadn’t died. This includes lost income and pain and suffering experienced by the family members.

The damages are awarded to whoever brings the claim. If it’s the estate, the estate receives the funds and distributes them according to any directions in the will. If it’s the survivors who file suit, these individuals receive the money directly. In cases where there isn’t a will in place and the survivors aren’t in agreement over the distribution, the court can intervene and handle the dispute by appointing a personal representative or determining distribution.

What Are Eligible Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

The award of damages is another aspect that separates a claim of wrongful death from a murder or homicide charge. Whereas a criminal charge can result in prison time for the defendant, a civil charge looks at damages according to the financial loss experienced. If the defendant is found guilty in a wrongful death suit, monetary damages are awarded.

Arriving at fair compensation is a complex process, and damages are categorized in two ways. Some account for the losses incurred to the estate from the death of the individual, while the others account for the damages suffered by surviving family members because of the unexpected death.

Estate Damages

Losses to the estate are generally paid to the estate and distributed according to the instructions of the deceased’s will. Damages in this category generally include:

  • Lost wages that would have been earned if the individual had not died
  • Medical bills related to emergency treatment or care received prior to the death
  • Funeral costs and burial expenses
  • Property damage from the event that led to the death
  • Pain and suffering experienced by the deceased prior to their death

Survivor Damages

The second category is damages paid to the surviving family members. These losses include:

  • Pain and suffering related to the untimely death
  • Loss of companionship, care, or guidance (significant if a child loses a parent)
  • Lost value in domestic services provided by the deceased, such as losing wages or being the primary source of income

Each situation is different, and the individual bringing suit can ask for things specific to the situation. For example, a child or spouse would ask for damages concerning the loss of care and guidance, while a wrongful death lawsuit by the estate wouldn’t seek these types of damages.

Punitive Damages

Although not common, it’s possible to be awarded punitive damages in a wrongful death suit. Punitive damages are a form of additional punishment to the defendant, and the court can award these as deemed appropriate. You will find these awarded if the behavior of the defendant was considered especially harmful, such as drunk driving. Arizona law makes it complicated to sue for punitive damages, but there are special circumstances where this suit is allowed.

How Much Are the Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

The foundation for determining wrongful death damages is outlined in the Arizona Revised Statute Section 12-613. It also specifies that the damages won’t be subject to the liabilities and debt of the deceased unless the suit is being brought by the estate and the compensation is being awarded to the estate. This means the damages aren’t subject to claims from creditors before being issued to the surviving family members. There are several factors that determine how much compensation is appropriate:

  • Total expenses for medical, funeral, and burial services
  • Past salary history and projected future earnings of the deceased
  • Financial dependency of survivors, with minor, dependent children being awarded more than adult children
  • Value of emotional damages to surviving family members

Calculating damages isn’t an exact science, since the circumstances across wrongful death suits vary considerably. Each case is individually evaluated and awarded.

How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid?

The compensation from a wrongful death suit is paid directly to the survivors or the estate, potentially with the court determining how much each family member receives. Payouts for wrongful death claims are tax-free for surviving family members, but if the estate is worth more than $11.18 million, it may be subject to federal tax.

How To Handle a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Given the complexities of a wrongful death lawsuit, damage calculation, and settlement distribution, it’s best to work with an experienced attorney when going through this difficult time. The MDK Law Group can give you expert advice and guide you in seeking the compensation you deserve. Schedule your consultation today.