The unexpected and tragic loss of a loved one, in addition to causing grief and pain, can also lead to tremendous financial strain for families, particularly if they’ve lost a primary wage earner or breadwinner. When the death was caused by someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing, families in Rhode Island may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit, which is a civil lawsuit, seeking compensation for their losses.
How Rhode Island Law Defines Wrongful Death
Rhode Island law defines “wrongful death” as one that is caused by “the wrongful act, neglect or default” of another person or entity. The act or neglect that led to the death of the decedent must be the type of action that would have allowed the deceased to file a personal injury claim had he or she survived. A wrongful death occurs when one person dies as a result of the fault of another person or entity. Examples include auto accidents that occurred due to someone else’s negligence, medical malpractice or an intentional act such as a physical assault.
As in other types of personal injury cases, the defendant’s liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation or damages that the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent’s survivors. This is one of many factors that distinguish a civil wrongful death case from a criminal homicide case where a guilty verdict and conviction could result in prison time, fines paid to the state, probation and other penalties.
Another significant difference between a criminal homicide case and a wrongful death lawsuit is that in criminal court, the defendant’s guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant’s liability needs to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the death. A defendant could be sued for wrongful death in civil court even as he or she is facing criminal charges relating to the same death. Under Rhode Island law, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed even if the death was the result of a crime.
Proving Wrongful Death
In a wrongful death case, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. In order to prove wrongful death, the plaintiff must prove the following four elements:
Duty of care: The plaintiff must show that the defendant owed them a duty of care. You must show that the defendant was responsible for the safety of the victim. For example, a driver has a duty to follow the rules of the road and to act in a safe and reasonable manner.
Breach of duty: Plaintiffs must also show that defendants violated or breached that duty of care by acting negligently or carelessly. For example, when a driver operates under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, that amounts to a breach of duty to others who are using the roadway.
Causation: Plaintiffs must also show how the breach of duty caused the victim’s wrongful death. For example, in a medical malpractice case, plaintiffs must show that a medical professional’s failure to diagnose cancer directly caused the victim’s death. While it may seem like an obvious connection, it could require extensive testimony from experts to show and prove causation.
Damages: You must also prove that the victim’s wrongful death resulted in compensable damages such as medical bills (that were incurred before the victim’s death), funeral and burial costs, lost future income, etc. Calculating the financial losses of the victim’s surviving dependents and beneficiaries is how you arrive at the final settlement amount.
The value or worth of a wrongful death lawsuit will depend not just on the victims’ losses but also the level of negligence on the part of the defendant. In some cases where the level of negligence or wrongdoing is egregious or outrageous, juries or courts may award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. This is meant to punish the defendant and deter others from engaging in similar behavior.
Why You Need a Wrongful Death Lawyer
It can be extremely challenging to navigate the complexities of a wrongful death lawsuit, especially when you are still grieving the loss of a loved one. An experienced Rhode Island Wrongful Death Lawyer will help protect your rights every step of the way, help compile crucial evidence and also assist you with avoiding the pitfalls that could potentially jeopardize your claim.