There is never any easy way to lose someone that you love; the death of a spouse or family member is a tragic occurrence regardless of the circumstances. When you lose a loved one in an unexpected accident, however, the pain of your loss can become unbearable. You may not have been able to say goodbye to your loved one or have closure following their passing. In addition, if you relied on your loved one's income, you may not have prepared for the financial stress that his or her death has caused.
If your loved was killed due to a dangerous condition on someone else's property, the property owner may be liable for your loved one's death. In such a case, you, as a surviving family member, may be able to recover damages from the property owner for the negligence that caused your loved one's death. If you are suffering emotionally or financially following your loved one's death in Washington or Oregon, the attorneys at Schauermann Thayer may be able to help you recover financial compensation to get your life back on track following a loss you never expected to endure.
What is a Wrongful Death Action?
A wrongful death action is a lawsuit, filed against whoever negligently or willfully caused your loved one's untimely death. A wrongful death claim is like a personal injury lawsuit, except the victim is no longer alive to claim damage on their own behalf. Instead, the surviving family members file the lawsuit to hold those who casued the accident accountable for their actions.
If a car, bicycle, or motorcycle accident involving another vehicle caused your loved one's death, for example, then the responsible individual may be a driver of the at-fault vehicle. The vehicle manufacturer may also be liable if product defects that caused the accident.
If your loved one was killed due to a dangerous condition on someone else's property, a wrongful death action could be brought against the owner of the property who either failed to make the property safe for your loved one, or failed to warn your loved one of the dangerous conditions present on the property.
Death Resulting from Dangerous Conditions on Another's Property
Many unfortunate accidents occur on someone else's property. These could be caused by dangerous conditions that were never fixed, or ongoing dangers like open construction sites. The success of this may depend on the victim's while visiting the property. Any person who enters the property of another person does so as either a trespasser, a licensee, or an invitee.
- Trespasser: Few protections exist for those who enter another person's property without permission. If your loved one was killed while on the property of another without permission, then their status as a trespasser may be difficult to overcome in a wrongful death lawsuit.
- Licensee: When a person enters a property as a guest, and does not create any financial incentive for the property owner, he or she is called a "licensee." A licensee can be thought of as a house guest--he or she is at the property solely for company, and does not have a business purpose. Property owners owe a duty to licensees to warn of any potential hazards in the property, but to a lesser extent than if the guest was an invitee, as discussed below.
- Invitee: An invitee is an individual who enters another person's property for a potential financial benefit to the property owner. Anyone who enters a store or a public park, for example, would be deemed an invitee of the property. Whereas a property owner only has a duty to warn licensees of potential hazards, property owners have a stronger duty to invitees--they must make the property safe for the guest.
A wrongful death attorney who has knowledge of premises liability law will be able to determine the status of your family member at the time he or she entered the property. If the property owner did not uphold his or her duty of care to your loved one, he or she may be liable for the harm caused.
If your loved one drowned while on someone else's property--whether in a swimming pool, pond, or lake--you may be able to recover damages from the property owner. Oftentimes, hazardous conditions are not adequately marked to warn guests of potential dangers. A swimming pool which did not have "no diving" signs displayed on the property, for example, may create an unreasonable danger.
Similarly, if the property was not adequately maintained and your loved one drowned due to a hazardous condition created by the property owner's failure to maintain the property, you may have a valid claim for wrongful death against the property owner.
Other Forms of Accidents on Someone Else's Property
Many other types of accidents can give rise to a wrongful death action against a negligent property owner, including:
- Attacks by dogs or other vicious animals;
- Slip- or trip-and-fall accidents; and
- Lack of adequate security on the property.
Who Brings a Wrongful Death Action?
While you may be entitled to recover from a wrongful death action for the loss of your loved one, it is not likely that you will file the action yourself. Rather, in most cases, a wrongful death action is brought by the representative of your loved one's estate.
A personal representative is an individual put in charge of handling your loved one's estate, including fulfilling any debts or obligations that your loved one owed and distributing property in accordance with your loved one's will. Typically, a personal representative is appointed in your loved one's will. If your loved one died without a will, however, or if the named personal representative cannot fulfill this role, a court-appointed personal representative will be appointed to handle your loved one's estate.
Who can Benefit from a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Individuals who have the potential to recover compensation from a wrongful death action are referred to as beneficiaries. There is no nationwide rule regarding who can be a beneficiary in a wrongful death lawsuit; rather, each state maintains state-specific laws regarding who can be named as a beneficiary after an individual's death.
According to Washington law, individuals who are eligible to benefit from a wrongful death action against the person who caused a loved one's death include:
- The deceased individual's spouse or registered domestic partner;
- Children of the deceased; and
- Stepchildren of the deceased individual.
If the individual who was wrongfully killed left behind no spouse, domestic partner, or child, the statute provides that the individual's parents and siblings may recover damages from a wrongful death action, provided that the parents or siblings were dependent upon the decedent for financial support.
Oregon's statute regarding who can recover damages in a wrongful death lawsuit is more broad than Washington. In Oregon, an individual may be able to recover compensation if they were:
- A spouse of the deceased individual;
- A child or stepchild of the deceased; or
- A parent or stepparent of the deceased.
Oregon's statute further states that a person may also be able to recover damages from a wrongful death action if they would be entitled to inherit property from the deceased individual was intestate, or passed away without a will.
How Long Do I Have to File a Claim?
The loss of a loved one is tragic and can take time to recover from. After suffering the death of someone who was near and dear to you, the thought of a lawsuit may be the last thing that you want to think about. While it is important to take some time to grieve your loved one, it may also be important to consult with an attorney as soon as possible following his or her death if you are considering a wrongful death action against the person who is at fault in your loved one's accident.
Time is not unlimited to file a wrongful death lawsuit; laws called "statutes of limitations" place time constraints on those who wish to file a lawsuit for the wrongful death. In the case of the death while on someone else's property in Washington or Oregon--whether by drowning or other accident from a hazardous property condition--a beneficiary only has three years to file a wrongful death claim against the property owner for the negligence which caused your loved one's death.
What Compensation Can I Recover for the Wrongful Death of my Loved One?
Compensation after the death of a loved one can include economic and non-economic damages related to losses suffered by the family.
Funeral and Burial Expenses
If you have had to unexpectedly bury your loved one, then you may not have been prepared to pay the costs of a funeral or burial. Such expenses can easily cost thousands of dollars. A wrongful death action can take into account the financial hardship that you suffered as a result of having to bury your loved one.
There may have been a substantial amount of medical bills incurred while trying to rescue your loved one. You may be saddled with the burden of these medical bills, and be financially unable to pay them. In a wrongful death action, those medical bills can be awarded as part of the damages that the at-fault party must pay.
Loss of Financial Support
If you relied on your loved one for financial support, his or her unexpected death may be particularly stressful on you. If you find yourself unable to pay for your mortgage, bills, or other living expenses as a result of the income which was lost as a result of your loved one's death, a wrongful death action may be able to provide you with financial compensation to offset this loss.
In addition, damages in wrongful death actions often account for the loss of earning potential which your loved one. For example, if your loved one was a doctor in the midst of a residency program, a wrongful death action would likely account for not only the income which such a program provided, but the elevated income which your loved one would have made once completing the program.
Loss of Companionship
While expenses such as funeral costs and medical bills are easy to quantify, it's impossible to put a price on the time, love, and support which you shared with your loved one. While there is no way to calculate your loved one's companionship in a dollar amount, a wrongful death lawsuit will take into consideration this loss.
In Oregon, the cause of your loved one's accident may be due to actions which are so egregious that typical compensation is not enough to compensate you for your loss. Your loved one might have died due to a hazard on someone's property which was so unreasonably dangerous that a judge or jury believes that the property owner should be punished for your loved one's resulting death.
In rare cases, beneficiaries of a wrongful death action may be awarded "punitive" damages, which are meant to punish the property owner whose dangerous property condition caused your loved one's death. While punitive damages are not the norm, they are sometimes awarded when a judge or jury does not think that ordinary damages are enough to compensate the survivors for the unimaginable death which their loved one suffered.
We're Here to Help
If you are in the unthinkable situation of losing a loved one due to a property owner's negligence and are considering a wrongful death lawsuit, the time to consult with an attorney is now. The team of attorneys at Schauermann Thayer have helped individuals in their battle for justice for a death which should never have occurred.
Our attorneys are here to help. To speak with an attorney regarding the circumstances surrounding your loved one's death, complete an online contact form or call (360) 695-4244 today.