What can family members recover when a loved one dies?
When a family member is killed as a result of someone's negligence, the responsible party isn't off the hook just because the deceased can't file a personal injury lawsuit themselves.
In Tennessee, certain surviving family members can recover damages from an at-fault party by filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
Wrongful death lawsuits are more complicated than traditional negligence lawsuits for several reasons, including the fact that not every surviving family member is allowed to file a lawsuit.
Let's take a close look at wrongful death lawsuits in Tennessee.
What is a wrongful death lawsuit?
Tennessee's wrongful death statute can be found in Tennessee Code Annotated Section 20-5-106.
The law itself is long and full of "legalese," but here's what you need to know:
When a person is killed as a result of someone's wrongful act, the deceased no longer has the ability to file a personal injury lawsuit against the responsible party. Instead, the right to file the lawsuit passes to certain surviving family members. If the family members choose to file the lawsuit, it's called a "wrongful death lawsuit" and the family members can recover the damages the deceased would have been able to recover had they survived as well as compensation for the loss of the deceased.
Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee?
Tennessee only allows certain family members of the deceased to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Those family members (in order) are as follows:
- The deceased's surviving spouse
- The deceased's child or next of kin
- The deceased's natural parent(s) if they had not surrendered or abandoned the deceased pursuant to a court order
- The deceased's legally adoptive parent(s)
How do I file a wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee?
A wrongful death case is filed in the same manner as the deceased would have filed their lawsuit had they survived.
An experienced attorney will make sure the lawsuit is properly filed. But, in brief, you'll have to file the lawsuit in the appropriate court and give proper notice of the lawsuit to the party you're suing. From there, the party you're suing (the defendant) will have an opportunity to respond and the court will set hearing dates.
You're allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit without an attorney (pro se), but you should be aware that wrongful death lawsuits can be very complicated. This is particularly true if there's more than 1 family member who has an interest in the lawsuit.
How long do I have to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee?
Tennessee's statute of limitations is one of the strictest in the country.
There are some narrow circumstances in which the 1-year statute of limitations may be extended. For example, the statute of limitations may be extended to 2 years if criminal charges are brought against the person alleged to have caused or contributed to the wrongful death, such as in the case of a fatal drunk driving accident or hit and run.
It's important to take the statute of limitations seriously. If you fail to file your lawsuit within the allotted time, you'll be permanently barred from filing the lawsuit.
What damages can I recover in a wrongful death lawsuit?
There are 2 main categories of damages that family members in Tennessee can recover in wrongful death lawsuits:
- Damages the deceased could have recovered if they had survived, and
- Damages associated with the loss of the family member.
Let's take a look at both:
Damages the deceased could have recovered if they survived
Tennessee law allows family members to recover damages for the injuries sustained by the deceased from the time of the injury to the time of death. These damages include:
- Physical and mental pain and suffering
- Medical expenses
- Funeral expenses
- Lost wages
Let's look at an example:
John was driving down Warford Street in Memphis when he was hit by a car that ran a red light, driven by Justin. As a result of the crash, John was rushed to the emergency room and spent 3 days in the intensive care unit where he underwent several surgeries. Ultimately, John passed away from his injuries.
In this scenario, certain members of John's family would be able to recover the damages John would have been able to seek from Justin had he survived. This would include the medical expenses incurred during the 3-day stay at the hospital, any lost wages from those 3 days, and damages for the physical and mental pain suffered by John during those 3 days.
Damages associated with the loss of the family member
Tennessee law also allows family members to recover damages for the loss of their loved one. These damages include:
- Intangible benefits the family member would have received if the deceased had lived, including attention, guidance, care, protection, training, companionship, cooperation, affection, and love.
- The monetary value of the deceased's life, taking into account things like the expectancy of the deceased's life and the capacity for labor and earning money.
What must I prove to win a wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee?
When you file a wrongful death lawsuit, you're essentially stepping into the shoes of the deceased. As a result, you must prove liability the same way the deceased would have had to if they survived the wrongful act.
For example, if the deceased was killed in a car accident, you would have to prove that the driver was negligent by establishing the 4 elements of negligence.
How do I find an attorney to help with a wrongful death lawsuit?
A wrongful death claim is considered a personal injury claim. Consequently, you'll want to find an experienced personal injury attorney to handle your claim. Though it's not essential, finding an attorney who has handled wrongful death claims is a good idea.
Word of mouth is a terrific way to find an attorney, so consider reaching out to trusted family members, friends, and colleagues. If you can't locate an attorney through word of mouth, you can find a licensed Tennessee personal injury attorney close to you using our free online directory.
Have you lost a loved one in a preventable accident?
Wrongful death lawsuits are particularly difficult because in the face of such a tragedy, families and loved ones must pick up the pieces of their life despite their grief and soldier on through the legal system, meeting each deadline and acting like it’s any other lawsuit. These are usually filed by husbands, wives, children, parents and siblings of the deceased with the help of a legal representative. Read more
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