If you've recently suffered the tragic loss of a spouse, child, or other immediate family member due to another's negligence, you may be bouncing between grief and rage and wondering about your next steps. While there's never an upside to such a tragedy, if the accident or injury that claimed your loved one's life took place in Alabama, you may be able to benefit from fairly generous laws governing wrongful death lawsuits. In some cases, you and your family may be able to collect a sizable legal judgment to help replace your loved one's income or to sue for damages. Read on to learn more about Alabama's wrongful death laws to determine whether this is a course of action you wish to pursue.
What is a wrongful death lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit is a specific type of personal injury lawsuit filed by the surviving spouse or other close family members of someone killed due to negligence, recklessness, or wanton criminal conduct. In most states, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed in any situation that would have given rise to a personal injury lawsuit by the deceased if he or she had not died.
In some situations, the actions that gave rise to the wrongful death lawsuit may also be the basis of criminal charges against the responsible party. A wrongful death lawsuit won't affect the criminal case, but a criminal conviction handed down before the wrongful death lawsuit has reached judgment could help bolster claims that the defendant was responsible for the decedent's death.
If a wrongful death lawsuit is successful, the decedent's family should receive a financial judgment against the defendant. The amount of judgment can vary widely, but usually takes factors into account like the decedent's income or earning potential, financial obligations, number of dependents, and age at the time of death. For example, in most states a young, healthy father of 5 killed in a bike accident will likely recover a greater amount than a much older bicyclist with no dependents, simply due to his increased financial obligations and prospective years of life remaining.
How are Alabama's wrongful death laws different from other states?
Each state sets its own laws governing wrongful death -- who can sue, how much can be recovered, and under what circumstances a defendant may be held liable. However, Alabama's laws are very different from those of the other 49 states in that only punitive damages (not compensatory damages) are considered when handing down judgment. The Supreme Court of Alabama has interpreted the state statutes to indicate that the only funds to be received by the surviving family members through a wrongful death lawsuit are "entirely punitive, imposed for the preservation of human life and as a deterrent to others to prevent similar wrongs."
This departure from the concept of both compensatory and punitive damages can impact an Alabama wrongful death lawsuit significantly. For those suing on behalf of decedents who may not have been able to recover much in compensatory damages (for example, retirees without dependents at home or any outstanding debt), this can often result in a greater recovery than otherwise available. However, those who are already dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars in future lost wages, medical bills, and other expenses after suffering the sudden loss of a spouse or parent could find that even a hefty punitive damages award isn't enough to fully cover all costs incurred.
The level of negligence or recklessness by the defendant will also play a part in the amount of punitive damages awarded. Because these damages are designed to punish the defendant and serve as a warning to others, the more extreme or reckless the conduct, often the higher the judgment.
If you're considering filing a personal injury lawsuit in Alabama, you'll want to speak with an experienced attorney first. An attorney will be able to evaluate the facts of your case and perhaps even come up with a rough estimate of the potential judgment you could recover to help you decide whether this investment of your time and emotional energy is worthwhile.