Dallas Wrongful Death Lawyer
Table of Contents
- Your Wrongful Death Claim
- The Difference Between a Criminal and Wrongful Death Case
- Filing the Wrongful Death Claim
- The Statute of Limitations
- Important Factors
- Wrongful Death: FAQ
Losing a loved one to someone else’s negligence is the kind of loss for which there is no remedy, and the journey toward healing is long and painful. To make matters even more difficult, the loss of a loved one can also have a devastating financial effect on your family. While nothing can return your loved one to you, seeking the compensation to which you are entitled via a wrongful death claim can help you and your family follow the path toward recovery, and working closely with a dedicated Dallas wrongful death lawyer can help.
Many people are confused by the concept of wrongful death claims, and having a better understanding of what is involved can help you make the right decisions for you as you move forward with the legal process. A shortcut for getting a handle on what wrongful death claims are all about is comparing them to personal injury claims, which they closely resemble. If, for example, your loved one was injured by another driver’s negligence in a car accident, it means that they can file a car accident claim against the at-fault driver (generally through the at-fault driver’s car insurance company). If the injuries sustained by your loved one, however, ultimately prove fatal, you can step into your loved one’s shoes and file a wrongful death case on their behalf and in lieu of the car accident claim they would have filed had they survived their injuries.
Wrongful Death Defined
In Texas, wrongful death is defined as a death that is caused by an action on the part of the at-fault party, which can be classified as one of the following:
- A wrongful act
- Failure to fulfill an obligation (default)
The person who caused your loved one to lose their life, in other words, may have done so intentionally (such as via a criminal act) or negligently (such as via a car accident that was caused by excess speed or distraction). If the act was criminal in nature, the at-fault party might also face criminal charges, but this will have no bearing on your ability to bring a wrongful death claim.
The basic components of wrongful death claims in Texas include:
- The injuries involved caused your loved one to lose their life
- The fatal injuries sustained by your loved one was caused by the at-fault party’s negligence (or worse)
- Had your loved one lived, they could have filed a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault party
In order to bring a successful wrongful death case, you’ll need to prove the at-fault party’s negligence. Negligence factors into these claims in the following way:
- The at-fault party owed the decedent a duty of care. For example, every motorist who gets behind the wheel of a car owes everyone else on the road a duty of care that includes driving safely and not jeopardizing the safety of others on the road.
- The at-fault party breached the duty of care that they owed the decedent. For example, drunk drivers allow safety to fly out the window, and in so doing, they breach the duty of care they owe others on the road.
- The at-fault party’s breach caused the decedent to be injured. If the drunk driver, for instance, broadsided the decedent’s car when the decedent entered the intersection on a green light, and the at-fault driver entered after running a red light, the drunk driver’s negligence caused the decedent’s fatal injuries.
- Monetary damages were a result, meaning the hospital bills incurred before the decedent succumbed to their injuries, the decedent’s lost earnings, their family’s loss of an inheritance, and more.
If the at-fault party faces criminal charges for the fatal act that caused you to lose your loved one, the criminal charge is brought by the state, and the defendant will face penalties such as time behind bars or fines (if convicted). Your wrongful death case, however, is a civil case, and the defendant is liable only for your damages (or losses), which amounts to financial compensation. Further, the burden of proof in a criminal case is far higher (beyond a reasonable doubt, which means it isn’t reasonable to believe otherwise) than it is in a civil case (a preponderance of the evidence, which means that it is more likely than not).
In Texas, the following survivors of the decedent (the loved one whom you’ve lost) can file the wrongful death claim:
- Their spouse
- Their children
- Their parents
If none of these survivors file a wrongful death claim within three months of their loved one’s death, the representative of the decedent’s estate (as named in the estate) can do so (as long as qualified survivors do not request that no claim be filed). This representative can be a family member of the decedent, their lawyer, or another kind of legal representative. The compensation that is ultimately obtained by this representative typically either goes to the decedent’s survivors or to their estate. Texas is relatively restrictive in its wrongful death laws (relative to many other states), and non-relatives are generally completely barred from filing (except in those rare instances when a non-relative can prove their financial dependence on the decedent).
In Texas, you have only two years from the date of your loved one’s death in which to file a wrongful death case against the at-fault party, known as the statute of limitations for wrongful death cases, and it is relatively brief when you consider that the clock will begin ticking when you are facing considerable financial and logistical challenges – in addition to the overwhelming grief involved. Exceptions to this two-year timeframe include:
- The person bringing the wrongful death case is a minor.
- Negligence on the part of the defendant (who is ultimately named) wasn’t identified until after the two years had passed.
- The person bringing the wrongful death case was physically or mentally impaired to the point that it prevented them from filing.
- Fraud kept the person who ultimately brought the case from doing so within the two-year timeframe.
The Damages Sought
The damages you can seek in your wrongful death claim include all the following:
- The earning capacity your household has lost
- The loss of the care, services, support, counsel, maintenance, and advice that the decedent would have provided to you, their survivors
- The mental pain and anguish you’ve experienced as a result.
- Your loss of love, companionship, comfort, and society
- Your loss of inheritance, which refers to the likely value of the decedent’s estate had they lived to the age expected
In some instances, punitive damages (also called exemplary damages) are available in wrongful death cases but only in those instances in which the death was caused by the defendant’s willful act, failure to act, or gross negligence. The purpose of these damages is not to compensate the family but to punish the wrongdoer and to deter others from engaging in similar practices.
The damages awarded by the court in wrongful death cases are distributed to the decedent’s qualified survivors in proportion to the damages suffered by each (as determined by the court).
There is also a Texas survival statute that may apply to your situation, and it allows the decedent’s qualified survivors (or their estate’s representative) to file what is known as a survival action. This action permits recovery on the damages sustained by the decedent prior to succumbing to their injuries. The kinds of damages involved include:
- Property damages (such as to the decedent’s car in a fatal car accident)
- The wages the decedent lost between the time of the accident and the time of their death
- The medical bills the decedent accrued from the time of the accident to the time of their death
- The cost of the decedent’s funeral and burial
Compensation for the pain and suffering experienced by the decedent prior to succumbing to the fatal accident may also be available, but it is necessary to prove (by what is considered competent evidence) that they were conscious and was forced to endure the mental pain and anguish for which you seek compensation.
The Insurance Company
Often, wrongful death claims are filed with the at-fault party’s insurance carrier (such as with the at-fault driver’s car insurance provider after a fatal car accident). While the insurance company is responsible for covering the claim, it is thoroughly invested in keeping your settlement as low as it can get away with and has several strategies at its disposal for doing so.
Early Settlement Offer
If the insurance company comes back with an early settlement offer, it can feel like a huge relief – in the middle of the chaos and grief you are enduring – but the insurance company may be taking advantage of your desperation (which it is well aware of). By making an early offer, the insurance company is banking on you not fully recognizing the extent of your losses and accepting an amount that is less than you are entitled to as a result. Once you sign off on a lowball settlement, your legal remedies (related to your wrongful death claim) will end. Before signing off on a settlement offer, it is always a good idea to consult with an experienced wrongful death lawyer who is well acquainted with the specifics of your case.
The insurance company may deny your claim outright in the hope that you will simply give up. Reasons for denial include a redirection of fault (suggesting that fault lies with your lost loved one rather than with the insurance company’s policyholder). While such a denial can come as a real blow in the midst of everything else you are going through, it is important to remember that the insurance company does not make the final decisions on the matter, and if you file a lawsuit against the insurance company, the court will do the deciding. You can trust your wrongful death lawyer to help you understand your case’s strengths and challenges and should make decisions accordingly. In other words, if your wrongful death lawyer believes that your claim has merit, you should, too.
Artificially Complicated Claims Process
It is probably no surprise to learn that the wrongful death claims process is complicated and lengthy, to begin with, but if the insurance company chooses to artificially complicate and prolong this process, it can leave you with little recourse other than giving up in frustration (which is what the insurance company is going for). There are laws in place that are meant to thwart this brand of less-than-honest practice, and having a skilled wrongful death lawyer in your corner can help remind the insurance company of these rules, regulations, and restrictions, which is very likely to help your claim move forward more effectively and efficiently.
While there are wide-ranging factors that will help guide the course of your wrongful death claim, there are several factors that tend to play a more significant role.
The Decedent’s Role in the Family
If your loved one was the primary breadwinner in your family and you have several children who depended on them financially, your claim will look very different than if your loved one had no children and didn’t work. If your loved one was a high earner or was a caregiver in your family, the loss is more substantial (in the eyes of the law only) than if they did not fill any such roles. Further, even your lost loved one’s contributions to the community at large can play a significant role in your settlement.
How the jury in your case perceives the defendant who is responsible for your loved one’s death can be a deciding factor in your wrongful death claim. If the defendant’s actions are deemed to have been willful, malicious, or especially egregious (rather than simply negligent, such as driving too fast or texting behind the wheel), it can significantly affect your settlement or court award.
If you have lost a loved one to someone else’s negligence, you almost certainly have a long list of questions. After all, you were blindsided by your loss, might be facing financial deficits, and are shouldering crushing grief. Each of these makes moving forward especially challenging, but having the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions can help.
Can I afford an experienced wrongful death lawyer?
In the aftermath of losing a loved one to someone else’s negligence, it can be difficult to contemplate how you are going to afford a wrongful death lawyer on top of everything else you are dealing with, including financial losses related to a potential decrease in earnings in your household. It is only natural to be concerned, but obtaining just compensation is so important to your ability to reach your fullest recovery that you should not consider leaving your case to chance an option. Fortunately, most reputable wrongful death lawyers work on contingency, which means that you won’t owe anything unless your case settles out of court (as most cases do) or you receive compensation in the form of a court award. Upon either settlement or court award, your Dallas wrongful death lawyer will receive a prearranged percentage of your compensation. In other words, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for the professional legal counsel that you need.
Who qualifies as a spouse when it comes to wrongful death claims in Texas?
In Texas, if you are married or are in a common-law marriage at the time of the fatal accident that kills your spouse (or common-law spouse), you are entitled to file a wrongful death claim. Further, now that same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states, the same applies to same-sex spouses.
What about adoptive children and parents?
When it comes to adoptive children and parents in relation to wrongful death cases, things are a bit complicated, but the following apply (and may help to clarify the matter regarding parents and children generally):
- A biological child of a deceased parent can file a wrongful death case in Texas.
- A child who was formally and legally adopted by their now-deceased adoptive parent can also file a wrongful death case, but the child cannot bring a wrongful death case related to the death of their biological parent.
- Adoptive parents can file wrongful death claims regarding the loss of their adoptive children, but stepparents and foster parents cannot.
- Adult children may file wrongful death claims in response to the loss of a parent.
- Divorced parents can file wrongful death suits in relation to the death of a child.
It’s important to note that, in Texas – unlike in some other states – grandparents and siblings cannot file wrongful death claims (in relation to their lost grandchild or sibling, respectively).
Aren’t wrongful death claims and survival actions the same?
Wrongful death claims and survival actions are actually distinct matters. You bring a wrongful death claim to address the damages you’ve experienced as a result of a lost loved one, meaning that you will be required to prove that you are suffering financial and emotional damages due to your loved one’s untimely death. In a survival action, on the other hand, you can seek recovery of damages that relate to your loved one’s losses, including their pain and suffering, lost earnings, and medical expenses – experienced in the expanse of time between the accident that ultimately proved fatal and your loved one’s death. A survival action can also seek punitive damages that are meant to punish the egregious nature of the at-fault party’s negligence (if this is the case). Damages recovered in a survival action flow to the decedent’s estate and are distributed from there.
Will my wrongful death claim go to court?
The majority of wrongful death claims settle out of court, and yours is likely to do the same. Your knowledgeable wrongful death lawyer will skillfully negotiate with the insurance company of the at-fault party (typically) for just compensation that addresses your full array of covered financial and emotional damages, and as long as the insurance company is willing to negotiate in good faith, your wrongful death claim is almost certain to settle out of court. If, however, the insurance company is balking at negotiating fairly, the best path forward will likely involve going to court. Simply showing the insurance company that you are prepared to go to trial, however, can be motivating, and the insurance company may change its attitude toward fair negotiations.
What is my wrongful death case worth?
While there is no way to put an exact value on your wrongful death case (there are myriad factors involved), your case will reflect your covered losses, which your experienced wrongful death lawyer will help ensure are well represented in your case.
Do I need a wrongful death lawyer?
There is no requirement that you hire a wrongful death lawyer, but it is important to note that wrongful death cases are notoriously complicated, and working with an experienced wrongful death lawyer can greatly improve your ability to recover on your damages in their entirety.
It’s Time to Consult with an Experienced Dallas Wrongful Death Lawyer
If you’ve lost a loved one to someone else’s negligence, the practiced and compassionate Dallas wrongful death lawyers at The Patel Firm understand the gravity of your situation and are committed to passionately advocating for your claim’s best possible resolution. Your case is important, so please don’t hesitate to contact or call us at 361-400-2036 for more information about how we can help you today.