Although explaining the statute of limitations in a wrongful death case should be straightforward, nothing could be farther from the truth. Every state has unique laws concerning wrongful death claims, and every state may have specific variations when it comes to product liability cases or medical malpractice claims.
Additionally, a completely different set of standards comes into play in cases involving minors, mentally challenged individuals, or fraudulent acts. Failure to understand exactly when the clock starts and stops in each case is a critical mistake.
Due to the state-specific wrongful death laws, few generalizations apply to this narrow yet complex area of personal injury law. Although a few states restrict the time frame for filing a wrongful death claim to a single year from the time of death, two to three years is generally the norm. Wrongful death and personal injury claims have both similarities and unique differences.
In all cases, a statute of limitations applies in the state where the death occurred.
Qualified survivors can file claims against those whose negligence caused a death due to:
- Medical malpractice, medical negligence, anesthesia complications.
- Defective devices, machines, or products.
- Unreasonably dangerous products.
- Bicycle, pedestrian, or motorcycle accidents.
- Birth injuries.
- Motor vehicle accidents, train wrecks, airplane crashes.
- Workplace injuries.
- Construction site accidents.
- Nursing home abuse and neglect cases.
- Prescription drug errors.
- Premises liability cases such as slip and fall accidents.
Due to the many potential causes of death from a personal injury, preparing a wrongful death claim, in any state, is both time-consuming and complicated. A wrongful death lawyer is a valuable resource for families hurt by the life-changing effects of someone else’s negligence.
The Reasoning Behind Statutes Of Limitations In Wrongful Death Claims
These statutes exist because:
- Statutes of limitations ensure legal action takes place quickly.
- A statute of limitations helps balance the scales of justice between a plaintiff and a defendant.
- Credible evidence, in every legal claim, is paramount. As time passes, critical evidence may disappear, or is no longer available. Potential witnesses are only as valuable as their memory—which can fade over time.
- In civil matters, the SOL protects potential defendants from legal action for incidents occurring many years in the past.
The Importance of Salutes of Limitations
These statutes are one of the most crucial aspects of a legal claim for wrongful death. Maybe even the most important. No one single action or, lack of action, can so definitively and decisively ban any financial compensation like the plaintiff’s failure to act within the statute of limitations.
With few exceptions, a statute of limitations is a hard and fast deadline, even when a clear case of liability exists, the defendant, or their insurance carrier, will be protected from financial liability if the defendant misses the filing deadline. For those families dealing with the tragedy of a loss of life due to another's negligence, the best course of action is to contact a personal injury attorney experienced in wrongful death claims in the state where the death occurred.
The Correlation Between a Statute of Limitations and Litigation in a Wrongful Death Claim
This quote from a book by author and lawyer Jackson Burnett is particularly appropriate in wrongful death cases: “Justice isn’t about fixing the past; it’s about healing the past’s future.”
There is no way to fix the death of a family member, but qualified family survivors can put themselves in the best possible position to recover:
- Funeral expenses.
- Medical expenses.
- Income lost from the time of injury to death.
- Anticipated future income of the decedent.
A family unit is in crisis when a member dies because of someone’s negligence, carelessness, recklessness, or intentional misconduct. The time limit for filing a claim varies by state, and each state’s statutes come with specific classifications. In simple terms, each state legislates the deadline to file a wrongful death.
The clock starts
- The date the harm happened.
- The point in time in which the plaintiff should have known the harm took place.
- The date the plaintiff discovered the harm.
So on a personal injury claim, the clock on the statute of limitations begins at the moment of injury, but on a wrongful death claim, the clock is a bit more forgiving of the special circumstances of a fatality: That is, either on the day of death or, sometimes much later when the plaintiff discovers new details about the injury.
Following an unexpected and catastrophic accident, a wrongful death attorney can guide a grieving family toward justice and secure the financial future for those left behind.
As with any rule, there are almost always exceptions to the norm.
This may hold with wrongful death claims based on:
- Medical malpractice.
- Claims against a city or state municipality.
- Product liability.
Other potential reasons the statute of limitations for wrongful death may extend, or the ticking time clock may pause, include:
- If the death was a result of a homicide or murder - the standard state-specific limitation period may extend to account for the period of criminal investigation and prosecution.
- Minors may legally delay claims until they reach the legal age.
- Claims intentionally delayed by an opposing party.
- Unexpected delays in the discovery process.
- Intentional fraud.
- A delay in probating a deceased estate.
- In the event of a qualified family member not realizing another party caused the death of their loved one.
- If the defendant cannot come to the state where the death occurred.
- When the cause of death is not determined until much later, as with a defective product.
- If the defendant in a wrongful death case dies before the plaintiff files the claim, the statute of limitations may stall until the estate establishes a legal representative.
There are as many potentially different case scenarios for wrongful death time filing legalities and restrictions as there are states in the country, For example:
- California recognized a wrongful death claim against someone whose extreme taunting or ridicule caused emotional distress leading to suicide.
- While most states have a two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death, in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, plaintiffs only have one year to begin a claim.
In many states, the statute of limitations for wrongful death litigation is the same for personal injuries.
Even then, you may find some exceptions.
- In Maine and North Dakota, the personal injury statute of limitations is six years, but in a wrongful death, the time limit for filing a claim is two years.
- Additionally, Maine medical malpractice wrongful death claims contain an exception to the exception, with three-year time frames.
- In New York, the personal injury statute of limitations is three years. However, plaintiffs must file medical malpractice wrongful death cases in 30 months.
- In Michigan, no specific statute applies to wrongful death. Cases in this state follow the limitation mandates of the cause of the incident.
- In Oregon, a plaintiff has three years to file a claim for wrongful death, but if alcohol is involved, the deadline for filing may reduce to 180 days. If a defective product caused the death, not only must plaintiffs file the claim within the three-year time limit, but also within ten years of the date the product was purchased.
A Snapshot of Examples
The following is a sampling of wrongful death statutes of limitations for Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey.
- The deadline for a wrongful death claim begins on the date of death. Plaintiffs must file within two years.
- Special rules for minors—a person under 18 who is not totally self-supporting must file suit within two years of their 18th birthday. Emancipated or totally self-supporting minors must file suit within two years of the injury
- Plaintiffs must file workers’ compensation claims for wrongful death within three years of the injury.
- Plaintiffs must file claims against a government entity within six months of the death.
In Pennsylvania, a personal representative of the family’s estate must file a wrongful death lawsuit. This is typically either a spouse or someone specifically mentioned in a properly executed will.
Courts assign benefits as follows:
- A surviving spouse receives all damages if the deceased had no children.
- If the deceased was childless with a surviving spouse, and a surviving parent, the spouse is awarded $30,000 of the settlement, plus half the remaining damages. The surviving parents divide the balance.
- If the deceased had a surviving spouse and children, the spouse receives $30,000 in addition to half of any remaining funds. If the children are also those of the surviving spouse, the remainder is divided equally among them.
- If the deceased had surviving children but no spouse, the children equally receive the total settlement.
- If the deceased's parents are the only surviving family members, they would divide all the benefits equally.
- If the deceased had no surviving parents, spouse, or children, the court will award the benefits to siblings, nieces, and nephews.
- In most cases, the statute of limitations for wrongful death is two years from the date of death.
- Plaintiffs must initiate a civil action concerning medical malpractice or negligence within seven years of the incident.
- The time frame for filing a wrongful death claim may extend if the defendant disappears or leaves the state.
- The time frame for filing a wrongful death claim may expend if the plaintiff is underage.
- If a government entity caused the wrongful death, the statute of limitations is four years.
- If the death results from homicide or murder then no time limit applies to a wrongful death action.
In Florida, eligible beneficiaries for wrongful death claims include
- The deceased’s spouse.
- The deceased’s minor children (under age 25).
- The deceased’s adult children if there is no spouse (except in cases of medical malpractice).
- Parents of deceased minor children.
- Parents of deceased adult children when there is no spouse or children (except in medical malpractice cases).
- Legal dependents.
- In a wrongful death case in New Jersey, plaintiffs typically must file a claim within two years of the victim’s death.
- If the plaintiff is a minor at the time of loss, the statute of limitations begins on their 18th birthday.
- Certain claims against government entities may require a 90-day notice of intent to file.
There is a defined hierarchy among those qualified to receive wrongful death benefits in New Jersey.
In order, they are:
- The surviving spouse.
- All children, both biological and adopted.
- Siblings, nieces, and nephews.
If your family struggles after a tragedy like a wrongful death, contact an attorney to learn about your rights and answer any of your questions or concerns. Wrongful death attorneys often offer a no-cost consultation and are here to help.