In many states, you can sue for funeral and burial expenses in a wrongful death claim. But is that a guarantee? In Alabama, things are done differently. If your loved one was killed in an accident, you cannot sue for funeral and burial expenses.
In Alabama, the damages that are pursued in wrongful death claims are very limited. You cannot sue for typical damages in a personal injury claim like medical expenses, lost income, funeral and burial expenses, and pain and suffering. Instead, you can only sue for punitive damages, which are designed to punish a wrongdoer. They are also supposed to serve as a deterrent to future wrongdoing.
So, what does this mean? Generally, that the award you receive could depend on the “severity” of the negligence. Let’s use a car accident as an example. Assume Driver A hits Driver B, and Driver B dies as a result of his injuries. What was Driver A doing? Was she speeding, or driving drunk, or texting while she was driving? What if she was driving safely but another driver cut her off, causing her to slam on her brakes and skid into another lane, hitting Driver B – is she still as negligent? Does this second scenario warrant punishment in the same way a texting or drunk driver might? In a case where someone is merely injured, punitive damages are typically designed to address egregious or reckless behavior, and may be awarded on top of compensatory damages; in a wrongful death claim, though, punitive damages are all you get. The stakes, as they say, are much higher.
There is one other big difference between punitive damages and compensatory damages when it comes to a wrongful death lawsuit, and it has to do with caps. When you file a personal injury lawsuit and you seek punitive damages, those damages can only be three times the compensatory damages, with a maximum cap of $1.5 million. These caps do not apply in wrongful death cases.
Restrictions placed on wrongful death claims
The state of Alabama places tough restrictions on what the jury presiding over a wrongful death claim can hear when it comes to testimony. The jury is not allowed to hear how the family has been affected by the following:
- The contributions of the breadwinner
- The pain and suffering endured by the deceased
- The medical expenses incurred prior to death because of the accident
- The loss of support for the family
- The funeral and burial expenses of the family
There is one exception to this rule: if the victim initially survived their injuries, and a personal injury lawsuit was filed before he/she dies.. If this happens, the jury will be permitted to hear testimony from the family about all of the above items.
Who can file a wrongful death claim in Alabama?
Another key difference in Alabama wrongful death claims is that the survivors are not allowed to file on their loved one’s behalf. The only one who can file a wrongful death claim is the administrator of the deceased’s estate. This is a position in which a family member can be appointed. If the deceased did not name an administrator for their estate in a will, however, the court will appoint one.
In Alabama, wrongful death damages go directly to the heirs of the deceased’s estate, per Alabama’s Intestate Succession Statutes, Ala. Code §§43-8-40 through 58. This still applies even if the deceased left a will.
Exceptions for minors
The only exception to the restrictions on wrongful death claims are for minors. When a minor has been killed in an accident, the parents have the right to file on their child’s behalf. Alabama considers a minor someone younger than 19 years old.
What is the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death claim?
The state of Alabama allows administrators two years from the death to file a wrongful death claim. If the wrongful death claim is made against a city or county agency, the statute of limitations is shorter, at six months for a city agency and one year for a county agency. You also have only six months to file for deceased minors. Once this time limit is up, you have missed the chance to seek compensation forever, as the court will more than likely dismiss your claim.
Proving negligence in a Huntsville wrongful death claim
The key to a successful wrongful death claim is proving negligence on the part of the defendant. Our experienced attorneys demonstrate negligence through these four points:
- Duty of care. The defendant must have owed a duty of care to your family member.
- Breach of duty of care. The defendant’s actions must have disobeyed that duty of care that was owed.
- Causation. You must directly connect your loved one’s death with the actions of the defendant.
- Damages. In Alabama, the damages for your loved one’s death are based upon wrongful actions or inaction of the defendant and the need to deter that type of conduct in the future.
Another important part of a wrongful death claim is determining whether the defendant’s actions are wrongful actions. Wrongful actions are any deliberate actions that cause someone harm. This can include driving drunk, putting a defective product on the market, failing to take care of a hazard on their property, or failing to provide a safe working environment.
To prove the defendant’s wrongful actions, our attorneys use copies of police reports, witness statements, medical expert testimony, records obtained via investigating the defendant, video footage of the accident, photos of the accident scene, and your loved one’s medical records. This evidence can help prove what is needed for every element of negligence.
When you have lost a loved one due to another’s negligence, you deserve top-notch legal representation to fight for them. At Martin & Helms, our wrongful death attorneys are the right attorneys to help you seek justice for your loved one. Call our office at 256-539-1990, or complete our contact form to schedule your free consultation. We represent families in Huntsville, Decatur, Madison, and Athens.