When To File A Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Not sure what a wrongful death lawsuit is, or how to file one? We’re about to cover:

  • What a wrongful death lawsuit is.
  • How to file a lawsuit for wrongful death.
  • When you can and why you should.
  • Wrongful death statistics, stories, examples, and more.

Looking for a quick answer? Check out our quick answers section for frequently asked questions on the subject at the bottom of the post.

Let’s start with a story about a family who filed a lawsuit against the hospital for a wrongful death…

Chesta Shoemaker, a registered nurse with a kidney infection was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Her progress became promising, but things took a turn for the worse. While trying to place a central line, the doctor inadvertently punctured her carotid artery. It cut off the blood circulation to the patient’s brain. The RN who was set to be discharged soon, died at the expense of a medical error.

But wait. Some clarification first. The doctor wasn’t as experienced as the patient and her family were led to believe. In fact, the doctor was in Vanderbilt’s residency program at the time.

And what’s more? She was unsupervised. This is just one example of what a wrongful death may look like. Keep reading to learn more important information, especially if you think your loved one was a victim.

Black and white image of a hospital.

Why File A Wrongful Death Claim Against A Hospital?

Firstly, what is a wrongful death lawsuit? Let’s say someone dies because of negligence. The surviving family member or spouse files a lawsuit against the hospital. That’s a wrongful death lawsuit. When someone sues a hospital, it’s typically a medical malpractice case.

In most cases, the wrongful death case would be filed by the surviving:

  • Spouse
  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Brother or sister, or
  • Child (or children)

Laws do vary by state. (See more details below.)

In a medical malpractice wrongful death claim, the plaintiff can sue the hospital itself. Or they can file a lawsuit against the specific members of the staff who were negligent. (That may be doctors, nurses, other healthcare providers – whoever caused the death.)

Wrongful death is often caused by negligence like:

  • Giving the patient the wrong prescription
  • Giving the patient the wrong dosage
  • Anesthesia errors
  • Negligent errors during surgery
  • Misdiagnosis
  • Failure to treat
  • Failure to diagnose
  • Delayed treatment
  • Negligent care of the patient
  • Birth injuries
  • Nursing home abuse or neglect
  • Hospital-related infections
  • Lack of informed consent
  • Using defective medical equipment

Let’s take a look at some wrongful death case stats.

Wrongful Death Stats

You may think wrongful deaths and wrongful death cases are rare. Unfortunately, they happen far too much. In fact, a Johns Hopkins study suggests medical errors may be the third-leading cause of death in the United States. We’ll give you a minute to take that in.

If a patient’s death is the cause of medical malpractice, family members are able to bring a wrongful death case against the medical facility. A claim can help the grieving family receive compensation for their loss. It also holds the negligent party accountable.

In Chesta’s case, death came too soon. She died needlessly. All because a medical facility allowed a resident to operate without supervision. The patient’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the family.

Do you believe a loved one’s death was a direct result of medical malpractice?

Can You Sue A Hospital For Wrongful Death?

The short answer? Yes.

But suing a hospital or doctor and winning a wrongful death case can be tricky. That’s why it’s important to work with an experienced wrongful death attorney. Filing wrongful death claims against hospitals or doctors is not only possible but necessary. Doing so can help prevent unnecessary injuries to others.

So when is a hospital liable for wrongful death?

If the hospital’s own practices and/or actions directly cause a death. For example:

  • Not keeping facilities properly cleaned and sanitized
  • Hiring incompetent staff members or medical providers who aren’t properly licensed
  • Under-staffing
  • Not following proper patient safety

If a nurse, surgeon, or other hospital staff member negligently causes a death. For example:

  • Incorrect surgical procedure
  • Other surgical errors
  • Drug administration or prescription errors
  • Labor and delivery errors
  • Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis
  • Giving medicine at an incorrect time
  • Medication overdose
  • Failure to adequately check a patient’s vital signs
  • Neglecting to examine a patient for bed sores
  • Failing to notify the treating physician of symptoms or concerns
  • Failure to put the patient’s nursing record correctly into the patient’s chart
  • Providing the incorrect dosage or type of medicines
  • Delayed medical response

Remember the story of the RN at Vanderbilt? Notice the family didn’t file a claim against the resident. That’s because the resident was employed by Vanderbilt.

And so it’s Vanderbilt that faces the repercussions. But if the doctor made the mistake, the wrongful death lawsuit likely would have been against them. More on that in the section below!

When Doctors Are Independent Contractors

Many doctors use hospital facilities to see patients and perform surgeries. But they’re not technically employees of the hospital. They’re simply independent contractors. In most cases, hospitals can’t be sued for the negligence of a non-employed doctor. But like with most things, there are fine lines. And that’s where the expertise of a lawyer comes into action. An experienced attorney can help determine which entity to sue and ultimately who’s liable for damages.

If a hospital is aware the doctor on staff is incompetent, and their negligence causes a wrongful death, the hospital can be sued.

Who Can File A Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against A Hospital?

A wrongful death lawsuit is usually brought forth by an immediate family member. Typically this is a spouse, adult child, or parent. The person filing the claim is doing so on behalf of the decedent’s estate. What does that mean? If the patient could have filed a medical malpractice claim had they lived, their estate can sue for the same exact damages.

Families can seek compensation for the death of a loved one in this way. Now, every state is different, so be sure to check the law in your own state. But here are some details to help you get a better understanding of who can legally file the lawsuit.

Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?

  • If the person who died is a minor child, the parent typically files the lawsuit.
  • In some states, adult children can sue if the person who died was an adult.
  • In some states, one of the partners in a domestic partnership or civil union can sue on behalf of the other partner.
  • Immediate family members can file a wrongful death suit in every state.
  • Most states permit more distant family members to file the lawsuit, when a single adult without children dies.
  • If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse almost always initiates the lawsuit.

Now that we’ve covered who can bring the suit against the hospital, let’s talk about how to navigate one.

Navigating Through A Wrongful Death Lawsuit

If you believe a family member died because of negligence and want to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital, you need to be able to determine the death was wrongful.

But what does that mean? And how?

Let’s say the deceased passed away because they didn’t follow after-care protocols administered by the doctor. This is not considered a wrongful death.

However, if the death could have been prevented by doctors, and they instead acted negligently, you have a case for a wrongful death lawsuit. So what do you need to do?

Prepare. Gather all your documents and evidence. Your case needs to clearly prove negligence occurred and is the reason for the death. What sort of documents?

  • Medical records including any x-rays, scans, etc.
  • Any form of communication between you (or the decedent) and medical providers
  • Any medical bills or receipts
  • Prescriptions

Contact a lawyer. Proving wrongful death by a hospital is no easy task. You’ll want to seek the help of a skilled attorney who has experience handling these types of cases.

Act fast. Most medical malpractice cases have a statute of limitations. A wrongful death lawsuit is no different. You have 2 years to file your claim. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine when the clock starts running. An attorney can help understand the timeline.

Family around a coffin holding a loved one during funeral.

Proving Medical Negligence

If you’ve got your documents ready and your evidence in hand, go through this list. In a wrongful death lawsuit, the evidence must show:

  1. Duty. The medical provider/hospital had a duty to provide the patient with proper medical care.
  2. Breach of duty. Doctors and medical professionals have a standard of care they must follow. If that duty or standard of care was not obliged by, there was a breach of duty,
  3. Causation. The actions of the hospital/doctor directly caused fatal injury to the patient.
  4. Damages. The patient suffered damages. Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit include loss of companionship and much more.

Families can seek compensation for:

  • Medical bills and expenses
  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Lost wages or income
  • Loss of support
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of guidance
  • Loss of companionship

If you believe a loved one was the victim of a wrongful death, you and your family may qualify for compensation. We’re experienced in wrongful death lawsuits. We can help determine whether your case may qualify for a lawsuit. Contact us today.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit Quick Answers

What is the definition of wrongful death?

Wrongful death occurs when someone dies due to the negligence or misbehavior of another person or entity. There may be a criminal prosecution in connection with the death. But a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital is actually a civil action. So it’s completely separate from any criminal proceedings.

What is the difference between wrongful death and medical malpractice?

Wrongful death is when a person dies because of someone’s neglectful or wrongful actions. Medical malpractice is when a healthcare practitioner fails to provide the proper standards of care to a patient. And this results in the patient’s death or injury.

Can you sue the hospital for death?

Let’s say a hospital commits medical malpractice and the result is the death of a patient. That patient’s family (the patient’s estate) can file a wrongful death lawsuit against them. This allows them to sue the hospital and get compensation for the death.

Is it hard to sue a hospital for wrongful death?

It can be. Sometimes, for example, the hospital may claim that the caregiver is the one to blame. This and things like this can make it a bit tricky to hold the hospital liable for wrongful death. That said, let’s say a hospital fails to meet proper healthcare standards. Or maybe they failed to provide the staff with the proper tools which would have kept the patient from dying. In that case, you should be able to sue them for wrongful death.

Who is eligible to file a claim for wrongful death?

The immediate family of the deceased are usually the ones who are eligible to file a wrongful death claim against the negligent provider. Wrongful death claims are brought by the grieving family’s closest members on behalf of their loved ones. This is frequently a parent, partner, brother, sister, son or daughter.

What are the time limits for my wrongful death case?

The statute of limitations is a specific time frame you must file a legal action within. Every state’s time limit is different. In Texas, for example, plaintiffs generally have (from the day of death) two years to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital. (At the time of this writing.) If you fail to file a lawsuit by your state’s deadline, you may forfeit your right to sue the hospital. So if you think you have a case, talk to your attorney as soon as possible.

How difficult is it to establish wrongful death?

How difficult it is to establish wrongful death depends on a number of things unique to your case. But demonstrating that the Defendant’s negligence led to the death? This is frequently the hardest requirement to establish. In most states, a jury must decide whether the defendant was negligent based on the evidence at hand.

When can a hospital be made accountable for a death caused by negligence?

A hospital can be held responsible for a patient’s death in a variety of ways. The following are the two most typical:

  1. The hospital’s carelessness in terms of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers
  2. The hospital’s own incompetence in terms of administering, or:
    • Overseeing medical services
    • Hiring and supervising staff
    • Repairing and maintaining equipment, etc

What happens if family members cannot agree on who will file the case?

Usually, there aren’t family disputes over who will act on behalf of the deceased. If the survivors can’t settle the dispute amongst themselves, the courts will have to resolve it. The court will take many factors into account and then appoint a representative of the decedent’s estate. That representative will be the only one who can file the claim.

What if the deceased left behind no immediate survivors?

The court will typically appoint the closest relatives to become the estate representative.

What is the average compensation for wrongful death?

The average payment in a wrongful death claim in the United States is between $500,000 and $1 million. A medical malpractice settlement’s median value is $250,000.

And in malpractice cases where the plaintiff wins, the average jury verdict is just over $1 million. Your wrongful death settlement can easily be less or more than the average.

How much can I expect in damages?

The answer is very case-specific. Many factors go into determining the final monetary amount. An experienced attorney can help you come up with an estimated value.

How long does it take to receive compensation for a wrongful death lawsuit?

There is no set standard of time for determining the timeline of any medical malpractice case. It could take months, or sometimes even years to reach a settlement.

In a wrongful death lawsuit, what damages are awarded?

In a wrongful death suit, damages (categories of losses for which a survivor may seek compensation) include:

  • The expense of medical treatment that the deceased victim incurred before death as a result of the incident
  • Costs of a funeral and burial
  • Loss of the deceased individual’s anticipated income
  • Deprivation of companionship and affection
  • Consortium loss
  • The deprivation of the deceased’s care, direction, and nurturing
  • Pre-death “pain and suffering” of the departed (AKA a “survival” claim).
  • Inheritance lost because of the death
  • The quality of the services that the deceased would have given

Can a girlfriend or boyfriend sue for wrongful death?

Unwed partners can sue (through the estate of the deceased) for wrongful death. In Texas, you can file a wrongful death action within two years of the deceased’s death, at least in most cases.