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Three Reasons Compensation For A Wrongful Death Claim May Be Denied

by Theresa Hoffman

Wrongful death claims are often challenging to litigate. There are a variety of factors that contribute to whether or not the judge or jury will agree with your position and decide the case in your favor. Here are three things that may result in your wrongful death claim being denied or dismissed.

Lack of Duty of Care

The first thing that must be established in a wrongful death case is the defendant had a duty of care to the person who died. Duty of care describes a person's legal obligation to take certain action or behave in a certain way. For instance, doctors are required to notify patients of the possible side effects of medication or treatments they prescribe. Breaching this duty of care makes a person liable for any harm that result.

Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to establish that the defendant had a duty of care to the deceased. For instance, a court recently dismissed the case against a school district who the plaintiffs claimed caused the suicide death of their son. The teen had committed suicide after being suspended from school when he confessed to stealing a laptop.

The parents claimed the teen was intimidated into a confession, which contributed to the boy's suicidal state of mind. However, an investigation into the issue did not find evidence supporting the parents' claims. Moreover, in dismissing the case, the judge found the school had no duty of care to the deceased because the teen was not on school property at the time of his death, had been released into the custody of his parents, and the administrators had no knowledge (or reason to know) of his suicidal intentions.

When evaluating the facts of a wrongful death claim, it's critical to make sure they clearly show the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased or find a legal theory that helps make the connection. For instance, if the school administrators in the previous example knew the teen was prone to suicide ideation, then it could be argued they could have foreseen the harm their interrogation would have done to him and be held accountable under the forseeabilty principle.

Breached Duty of Care But No Causation

Another area that may cause some trouble in your case is when the defendant breached his or her duty of care, but that breach either wasn't the cause or did not significantly contribute the person's death. For instance, a doctor leaves a medical instrument inside a patient after surgery. However, the patient dies after having stroke due to a different health complication. Even though the doctor was negligent in leaving the instrument inside the patient, it was not the direct cause of the patient's death.

To win a wrongful death claim, there must be a clear connection between the breach of duty of care and the resulting death. Even then, in cases where there may be more than one contributing factor, some states require the breach to represent a significant element in the person's death.

Contributory or Comparative Negligence

Whether or not the decedent contributed to his or her death can limit or eliminate your ability to collect compensation for damages. For instance, a person riding a bicycle with no brakes on a road with no lights who is struck by a vehicle may be found to have contributed to the accident.

In states with contributory negligence laws, you may be prohibited from collecting damages at all if the person is found to have contributed any amount to his or her death. In states with comparative negligence, however, the amount you receive may be reduced by the percent amount contributed to the decedent. For instance, if the decedent if found 40 percent liable, then you would only get 60 percent of the award money.

Another problem that may crop up is if a beneficiary of the wrongful death suit contributed to the person's death. In some states, if even one beneficiary can be held liable for the decedent's death, none of the beneficiaries can file a wrongful death claim. In other states, only the beneficiary who contributes to the person's death is prohibited from filing a wrongful death claim.

Litigating a wrongful death lawsuit can be very complex. It's essential that you work with a personal injury attorney from a firm like Allison & Rickards, Attorneys at Law, LLC to overcome some of the challenges you may face to obtain the outcome you want.