Under Florida law, if a person's death is caused by the wrongful or negligent conduct of another person or a company, the deceased person's estate can pursue what is known as a wrongful death lawsuit against the individual or entity responsible for the death. There are time limitations within which the lawsuit must be filed as well as rules governing who is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit and the damages he or she can recover for the deceased person's estate.
When Can a Death Be Considered “Wrongful?”
Florida law establishes a death as “wrongful” when it is caused by a “wrongful act, negligence, default, or breach of contract or warranty.” See Fla. Stat. § 768.19. For example, if a car accident results in a death and the evidence shows the person who caused the accident and death had driven recklessly, this would permit a cause of action for wrongful death to be filed against the driver based on a claim of negligence, the most common vehicle for personal injury claims in Florida.
However, other examples may be where the death is caused by a physician or nurse who does not follow the appropriate standard of care when rendering treatment to the deceased person and that failure caused the death. This is known as a medical malpractice lawsuit. A wrongful death can also be caused by a defective product, i.e., one whose design allowed for a dangerous condition to occur or whose warnings against the danger were insufficient. An intentional act that causes the death of another can also support a claim for wrongful death.
Who Is Eligible to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Eligibility for filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Florida is set by statute. Florida Statute § 768.20 states the person who is eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit is the “personal representative” of the decedent's estate. Meaning, an estate must be opened in probate and a personal representative appointed before he or she can file a wrongful death lawsuit for the death of the decedent. A personal representative acts on behalf of the estate to settle and distribute the assets of the estate in accordance with the decedent's will or, when there is no will, governing Florida law. When a personal representative files a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming the decedent's death was wrongfully caused by the negligent or harmful behavior of another, he or she is seeking to recover damages the death caused for any surviving family members, or other beneficiaries designated in the decedent's will, as well as the decedent's estate.
What Damages Can Be Recovered in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
At its core, a wrongful death lawsuit is really no different than a personal injury lawsuit. The only difference is, because the injured party died as a result of the wrongful or negligent conduct, the personal injury lawsuit is brought by the personal representative on the injured (now deceased) party's behalf. This means the “damages” the personal representative can recover in a wrongful death lawsuit are compensatory (monetary) damages, just as in a personal injury lawsuit. Similar to the eligibility to file a wrongful death lawsuit, the types of monetary damages the personal representative can recover are set by statute.
Fla. Stat. § 768.21 allows for different damages depending on the person entitled to receive the damages—i.e., the surviving spouse versus other survivors like children and parents, as well as the estate. Typically, the surviving family members can recover for “lost support and services” both from the date of the injury to the death as well as into the future. The surviving spouse and minor children can also recover for lost companionship and pain and suffering caused by the death. Parents of a decedent may recover depending on the age of the decedent and/or whether there are other survivors. The estate may also recover lost earnings and medical or funeral expenses.
What Is the Deadline to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The time to file a wrongful death lawsuit—that is not the result of an intentional act or manslaughter—is two (2) years from the date of the person's death. Like most of the other components and restrictions on wrongful death lawsuits, this deadline within which to file a lawsuit—commonly referred to as a “statute of limitations”—is set by statute. See Fla. Stat. § 95.11(4)(d). This time period can run much quicker than you think when you and the family are still reeling from the death, dealing with the decedent's belongings, debts, contracts, business matters, and life insurance, if there is any. Then there will be the opening of the estate and much administrative work involved there that will consume you.
As experienced personal injury attorneys who have handled many wrongful death lawsuits, we have seen how stressful and upending a sudden death can be. If you believe the death of someone you know was caused by another person's wrongful or negligent contact, please do not hesitate to contact us to get answers to your questions and find out whether you should pursue a claim for wrongful death. We never charge any fee or cost or require any obligation to simply sit down with you and talk about what happened.