An acquaintance of mine recently asked me whether it was appropriate to bring a wrongful death action on behalf of someone’s estate even though criminal charges had not yet been filed against a defendant.
I represent the estate of a young father of four children who was believed to be hit and killed by someone who had too much to drink at a local bar. Although the driver’s identity had been determined, the filing of the wrongful death action occurred prior to criminal charges being filed.
In Indiana, the ability to bring a wrongful death action is not based upon the existence of some criminal activity. In fact, a good many wrongful death lawsuits are filed against defendants who have committed no crimes. Instead, the action is based upon allegations of some negligence. Take for instance a case involving a doctor or hospital who fails to make a proper diagnosis of a patient and that failure results in the person’s death. There is nothing criminal about their actions. But the family and survivors are still allowed to sue the doctor and hospital for the death of their loved one.
Wrongful death actions can also occur as a result of car accidents; from the use of a defective product or generally, in any case where someone’s death was caused by someone who acted negligently according to the circumstances.
Wrongful death actions can also arise if the defendant’s actions were intentional. People may remember the criminal case against O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990s. Although O.J. was acquitted of all criminal charges, the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman received a verdict in a civil lawsuit of $33.5 million in a wrongful death action against the former NFL superstar. Although this type of wrongful death action is more unusual, it does arise in cases where the defendant is famous and wealthy.
Wrongful death actions cannot replace a lost loved one; nor can they serve as a substitute for criminal charges – when and if they should be filed. But wrongful death actions can help provide money to the victim’s family to provide the financial support that is oftentimes much needed. In cases involving children who have lost a parent, money is often needed to buy clothes, provide shelter, food and pay for education. For this reason, they serve a very important role.