A woman lays flowers on a coffin

Losing a loved one is an overwhelming experience, especially when it is the result of the actions of another. In North Carolina, when someone dies as a result of another person’s wrongful act, neglect, or intentional actions, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed. These claims can arise from various circumstances, such as car accidents, medical malpractice, or workplace incidents. In such challenging cases, knowing your rights and the legal process is essential to achieving a just outcome.

What Constitutes Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death in North Carolina is governed by the North Carolina Wrongful Death Statute (North Carolina General Statute §28A-18-2) and encompasses situations where an individual’s demise results from the negligent or intentional actions of another party. This can include various scenarios, such as car accidents caused by reckless driving, medical malpractice resulting in patient fatalities, defective products leading to fatal injuries, or premises liability incidents like slip and fall accidents resulting in death. Essentially, any action or failure to act that leads to someone’s death and could have been prevented with reasonable care may constitute wrongful death. To pursue a wrongful death claim, one must establish that the responsible party breached their duty of care, directly causing the fatal outcome. Proving negligence or wrongful conduct is central to the success of these claims.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?

In North Carolina, only the personal representative of the deceased is authorized to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Typically, this personal representative is the executor or administrator of the deceased’s estate. However, situations may arise where the deceased did not designate an executor in their will or no estate is opened after the decedent’s death. In such instances, family members of the deceased, such as the surviving spouse, parents, or children, can seek court intervention to appoint a personal representative, enabling them to pursue the wrongful death claim.

This legal process ensures that only individuals with the proper authority can initiate legal action on behalf of the deceased. Consulting with an experienced attorney can provide clarity on who has the right to pursue a wrongful death claim and ensure that the legal process is navigated effectively.

Proving Liability for Wrongful Death

Proving liability in a wrongful death action requires gathering evidence to establish that the defendant’s negligence or wrongful conduct directly caused the death. A plaintiff must prove the following elements to demonstrate liability:

  • Establishing the duty of care: Showing that the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased.
  • Breach of duty: Demonstrating that the defendant breached this duty through negligent or wrongful actions.
  • Causation: Proving that the defendant’s breach of duty was the direct cause of the deceased’s death.
  • Damages: Documenting the losses suffered by the surviving family members as a result of the death.

Damages in Wrongful Death Cases

Damages in wrongful death cases aim to compensate surviving family members for the losses they have suffered due to the untimely death of their loved one. In North Carolina, damages typically fall into two categories: economic and non-economic. Economic damages cover tangible losses such as medical expenses preceding the death, funeral and burial costs, lost income or financial support the deceased would have provided, and any property damage or loss associated with the incident leading to death. 

Non-economic damages, on the other hand, are more intangible and include compensation for pain and suffering, loss of companionship, emotional distress, and the impact of the loss on the family’s quality of life. Additionally, punitive damages may be awarded in cases involving egregious negligence or intentional misconduct, serving as a deterrent and punishment for the responsible party.

Statute of Limitations and Filing Deadlines

Pursuant to North Carolina General Statute §1-53, there is a strict statute of limitations that determines the timeframe within which a wrongful death claim must be filed. Typically, the statute of limitations for wrongful death cases is two years from the date of the deceased person’s passing. Failing to file within this timeframe can result in the loss of the right to pursue legal action and seek compensation. It’s crucial to act promptly and consult with an attorney to ensure compliance with the filing deadlines. 

Difference Between Wrongful Death Action and Criminal Homicide

Wrongful death and criminal homicide are distinct legal concepts, differing primarily in their purpose and burden of proof. Wrongful death cases are civil actions brought by the surviving family members of the deceased to seek financial compensation for their losses. These cases require demonstrating negligence or wrongful conduct by the defendant, typically resulting in a lower burden of proof than criminal cases. Criminal homicide, on the other hand, involves the intentional or reckless killing of another person and is prosecuted by the state as a criminal offense. It requires proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and may result in punishment such as imprisonment. While both involve the death of an individual, the key distinction lies in the nature of the legal proceedings and the outcomes sought.

Contact an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney

At Bradford Law, we provide compassionate guidance and advocacy for families navigating the complexities of wrongful death claims in North Carolina. Our experienced team is dedicated to fighting for justice and securing the compensation you deserve during this challenging time. Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss your case and explore your legal options.