Wrongful death damages will never replace your loved one, but they can help secure your family’s financial future
To lose a loved one as a result of another’s negligence is a loss that can never be fully compensated financially. However, it’s only right that survivors seek the same compensation that their deceased loved one would have pursued if they’d only been injured.
Montana’s wrongful death law affords that right to survivors.
Every state has its own wrongful death statutes. A claim for damages can be brought under the Montana wrongful death statute for “injuries to and the death of one person… caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another” according to Montana Code Ann. §27-1-513.
Montana statutes impose limits on jury awards in civil actions. Statutory guidance is rather sparse as compared to other states. If you lost a loved one to wrongful death, this is all the more reason for you to consult an experienced wrongful death lawyer early on in your consideration of options.
Does a Montana wrongful death action require the plaintiff to prove the same elements as any personal injury case?
For liability in wrongful death suits, the plaintiff must prove the same elements that apply to a personal injury lawsuit—namely:
- The wrongful death plaintiff must prove that there was injury or death.
- The plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s action was the proximate cause of the injury or death.
- The plaintiff must prove the defendant’s duty of care that was breached.
- The plaintiff must prove the allowable damages and amount thereof.
When must a wrongful death lawsuit be filed?
A wrongful death lawsuit must be commenced within 3 years after the decedent’s death. However, a 10-year statute of limitation applies in the case of wrongful homicide.
Types of damages in wrongful death suit
Many state wrongful death statutes specify and list the damages that can be claimed in a wrongful death action. Often, those specified damages include most of the damages allowable in other personal injury cases, but not all. For example, pain and suffering damages may be excluded.
The only statutory guidance related specifically to allowable wrongful death damages in Montana is “in every action under 27-1-513 such damages may be given as under all the circumstances of the case may be just” according to Montana Code Ann. §27-1-323.
Generally, damages allowable in a Montana wrongful death action break down into 3 categories: economic, non-economic and punitive.
Economic damages are objective, pecuniary and relatively easy to measure.
These tangible damages include:
- Lost wages, income and other financial compensation that the deceased would reasonably be expected to earn during their expected lifetime
- Out-of-pocket medical bills, funeral, burial and other expenses incurred as a consequence of the wrongful death
Non-economic damages are usually intangible and more subjective.
These intangible damages include:
- Loss of the deceased’s 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 lost inheritance—the value of what the decedent would reasonably be expected to accumulate had he lived
A jury will determine damages considering all of the plaintiff’s admissible evidence presented at trial. However, defendants will take into account the likely damage award by a jury while considering the risks of litigation for purposes of a settlement without trial.
Punitive damages might be awarded when the defendant’s negligence or willful actions are egregious.
“Normal” wrongful death damages are compensatory. However, if the decedent’s death is caused by a willful act, omission or gross negligence, the court or jury might award punitive (exemplary) damages in addition to compensatory damages.
Punitive damages are intended as a punishment to the defendant and as a deterrent to other offenders and the defendant’s future behavior. They are subject to statutory limitations and damage caps, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Who receives the damages awarded in a wrongful death case?
In Montana, the decedent’s personal representative is the plaintiff serving as a trustee for the benefit of the deceased’s heirs. It is their job to appropriately allocate the wrongful death benefits among the decedent’s heirs.
Is there a cap on wrongful death claims?
Wrongful death awards are subject to the same statutory limitations under the Montana Code Annotated (MCA) applicable to other personal injury claims.
As a general parameter, damages in any wrongful death case must be “no more than reasonable.” Your attorney will advise you regarding what is deemed reasonable in Montana wrongful death cases.
A wrongful death action can also be brought for medical malpractice. However, a medical malpractice award for noneconomic loss may not exceed $250,000.
MCA§27-1-220 establishes limitations on punitive damages that can be awarded in wrongful death actions as well as other personal injury cases. It defines punitive damages as damages awarded “for the sake of example and for the purpose of punishing a defendant.”
It further provides that “[an] award for punitive damages may not exceed $10 million or 3 [percent] of a defendant’s net worth, whichever is less.”
A wrongful death action can even be brought against a Montana governmental agency. However, such agency “is not liable in a tort action for damages suffered as a result of an act or omission of an officer, agent, or employee of that entity in excess of $750,000 for each claim and $1.5 million for each occurrence.”
The unexpected loss of a loved one is a tragedy that no amount of money can satisfy. However, the benefits do come in handy when affording funeral expenses and cost of living without the deceased’s income. In order to receive maximum benefits, your best bet is to engage an experienced Montana wrongful death lawyer.