What to expect when filing a wrongful death lawsuit
Every state has a wrongful death statute to address death caused by the negligence or intentional act of another. The aim is to assure the survival of causes of action that a deceased would have had if they had not been killed. To do otherwise would penalize him for dying.
When a person is injured as a result of another’s negligence, they typically seek compensation for their loss for the benefit of themself and their family, who also suffers.
The loss of a loved one from someone else’s negligence can never be fully compensated financially. But it is only right that survivors seek the same compensation that their deceased loved one would have pursued had they survived. Montana’s wrongful death law affords that right to compensation to survivors.
If an injured person had lived, they would have a claim for compensation, including direct costs, lost wages, partial or permanent disability, pain and suffering, and punitive damages. Those claims should survive their death in some fashion.
Montana wrongful death law
According to Montana’s wrongful death statute, Montana Code Ann. §27-1-513, if a person is injured and dies due to another’s negligence or intentional act, their personal representative (executor) can file a claim on behalf of their qualified surviving heirs.
The qualified family members who can receive damage awards are the deceased’s spouse and minor children and the parents of a deceased minor child.
Montana’s wrongful death statute also establishes a statute of limitations of 3 years after the date of death (or 10 years in the case of wrongful homicide) to file a claim. Otherwise, a wrongful death action is subject to the same common law requirements for liability as other personal injury tort cases.
What must a wrongful death plaintiff prove?
A wrongful death plaintiff is required to prove the same elements of a wrongful death claim that apply to a personal injury lawsuit. They must prove:
- There was injury leading to death.
- The defendant’s negligence or intentional act was the proximate cause.
- The defendant had a duty of care that they breached.
- The amount of allowable damages.
Types of wrongful death damages
Montana’s wrongful death statute does not enumerate the damages allowable in a wrongful death action. However, Montana wrongful death jury awards are subject to certain limitations applicable to other personal injury cases.
Montana wrongful death jury awards fall within the categories of economic, non-economic and punitive. Economic damages are expressed in monetary terms and are relatively easy to measure. Non-economic and punitive damages are not tangible and not subject to any objective method of measurement.
These tangible damages include:
- Lost wages, income and other financial compensation that the deceased would have reasonably been expected to earn had they lived for their expected lifetime
- Payment of medical bills, funeral and burial costs, and other expenses
These intangible damages include:
- Loss of the deceased’s consortium, companionship, love, care and comfort
- Spouse’s loss of intimacy with the deceased
- Pain and suffering that the deceased endured before death
- The monetary value of inheritance that the decedent would have accumulated had they lived
A jury can award punitive damages where the defendant’s negligence or willful actions are egregious. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are intended as a punishment to deter the defendant’s and other offenders’ future behavior.
Who receives the wrongful death jury awards?
In Montana, the decedent’s personal representative (executor) files a wrongful death action on behalf of the estate and the deceased’s qualified heirs. It’s the executor’s responsibility to allocate and distribute benefits among the decedent’s heirs. The executor will be guided by the deceased’s will or by intestate rules.
Is there a limitation on wrongful death awards?
Montana wrongful death jury awards are subject to the same statutory limitations applicable to other personal injury claims. That is, jury awards must be “no more than reasonable.” Some of the limitations are as follows:
- A wrongful death action can be brought for medical malpractice. However, a medical malpractice award for noneconomic loss may not exceed $250,000. MCA §25-9-411.
- Montana statutes also limit punitive damages to “$10 million or 3% of a defendant’s net worth, whichever is less.” MCA§27-1-220
- A Montana governmental agency can be sued for wrongful death. However, damages cannot exceed $750,000 for each claim and $1.5 million for each occurrence. MC§2-9-108.
Montana’s wrongful death law is established by common law more than definitive statutory law. The requirements, burden of proof, doctrines and rules generally applicable to personal injury law also apply to many aspects of a wrongful death claim.
When to contact a wrongful death attorney
If your family has suffered the misfortune of a wrongful death caused by the negligent or intentional act or omission of another, it’s critical that you contact an experienced personal injury and wrongful death lawyer. You are limited in the time you have to file your case, so the sooner you take action, the better. A monetary award can never assuage the loss of a loved one, but it can help you rebuild your life and take care of your family during your time of loss.