Alabama has laws that cover the handling of a wrongful death claim. If you aren’t familiar with the term “wrongful death,” it’s the death of someone that was caused by the wrongful act, negligence, or omission of another party. It is similar to a personal injury claim, but it is brought in cases where an accident or intentional act led to the victim’s death.
A wrongful death statute allows certain family members to bring a lawsuit against the party who caused your loved one’s untimely death.
If your relative died due to someone else’s negligence or intentional acts, it’s important you speak with a Phenix City wrongful death lawyer. Wrongful death claims can be extremely complex in Alabama. Our accomplished personal injury attorneys understand the law and how difficult and emotional of a time it is for you and your family.
At the Bence Law Firm, LLC, we have years of experience handling personal injury lawsuits, including wrongful death claims. Contact our office today and let us help you and your family through this emotionally challenging time and to learn more about our legal services. The consultation is free.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Alabama?
In Alabama, the personal representative of the deceased’s estate is the one to file a wrongful death claim in court. The personal representative is named in the person’s will or they are appointed by the court, depending on the circumstances. You may hear this person referred to as the executor or administrator of the estate. It’s often a family member who serves in this role.
The law allows family members 40 days to file a petition to become the estate administrator following their loved one’s death. After that time, the court has the right to appoint someone else other than a family member to the executor position.
Family members who would inherit the deceased’s estate if there were no will stand to recover compensation through a wrongful death claim in Alabama.
What Do You Have to Prove in a Wrongful Death Case in Alabama?
You can file a wrongful death claim only if the decedent could’ve recovered for the negligence, wrongful act, or omission had he or she lived. In order for the laws of Alabama to apply, the person must have died in the state.
The place where the decedent passed away is a critical element of proving an Alabama wrongful death claim. If the person died outside the borders of Alabama, then the laws of that state would be applicable in your wrongful death lawsuit.
Alabama is a contributory negligence state, which is another difficulty with wrongful death claims. This means if the deceased was deemed to be even 1 percent at fault, the entire claim can be thrown out. This means no matter how egregious the defendant’s behavior was, if the deceased contributed in any way, there is likely no recovery in a wrongful death case.
Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim in Alabama
Because the damages that are recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit are not considered part of the decedent’s estate, they will not be distributed according to the deceased person’s will or trust. What happens instead is that they are distributed based on the intestate laws as if the deceased passed away with no will. This means that even some family members who may not be named in a will may actually be entitled to a portion of the money recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Alabama is rather unique in its wrongful death law, which is covered under Alabama Code Title 6. Civil Practice §6-5-410. Most other states allow the family to recover compensatory damages in a wrongful death lawsuit, which would include medical bills, funeral and burial costs, and any other losses that are a result of the family member’s unexpected death. However, in Alabama, the law only allows for an award of punitive damages.
This is a stark contrast to other states. Essentially other states focus on the loss of the person’s life and any related damages, while Alabama focuses almost completely on the defendant’s wrongdoing.
The idea behind the wrongful death law in Alabama is to punish the defendant and hopefully deter other similar behavior by someone else. When a jury is calculating the award, they can only look at the defendant’s actions, and even their worth, but they cannot calculate the value of the decedent’s life or medical bills, burial expenses, etc.
Statute of Limitations on Wrongful Death Claims in Alabama
The statute of limitations is the time you have to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. After that time, the courts will almost certainly bar your claim and you will lose your right to seek compensation.
In Alabama, you typically have two years from the date of the person’s death in order to bring a lawsuit. There are some limited circumstances that might alter the statute of limitations. These situations can be best explained by a Phenix City wrongful death attorney. For example, if the claim involves a municipality, there may be a legal requirement to file notice of a claim before bringing a lawsuit.
Common Causes of Wrongful Deaths in Phenix City
There are a number of different situations and events that can lead to a wrongful death claim. Some of the most common ones include:
- Auto Accidents – Fatalities arising from a car crash are among the most common causes of wrongful death lawsuits in Alabama and nationwide. This can be due to drunk or impaired drivers, or even someone who is distracted momentarily by their phone or GPS navigation system. All it takes is a split second of taking your eyes off the road to cause a fatal collision.
- Commercial Truck Accidents – Just due to their sheer size and weight, accidents involving large trucks often end in fatalities. Sometimes a truck driver is overloaded, driving too fast for conditions, falling asleep, or distracted. Failure to properly maintain the vehicle is another common cause of fatal truck accidents.
- Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Motorcycle Accidents – In these situations, the rider or pedestrian doesn’t have the same level of safety protection as those riding in a vehicle. If they are involved in an accident, their body is likely to make direct contact with the vehicle and the ground or other hard objects. This can lead to death in many situations.
- Medical Malpractice – Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff have a duty to provide quality care to all of their patients. Medical malpractice occurs when the staff breaches that duty and the level of care given falls below acceptable standards. If this breach leads to death, you could have a wrongful death medical malpractice lawsuit.
- Product Liability – Every state has laws that hold manufacturers, distributors, product designers, and retailers accountable for manufacturing and selling dangerous products. Those involved in this process have a duty to the public to ensure that every product they make is safe. Defects can be in the manufacturing process or during the design and development phase. If those defects cause death, all parties responsible can be held liable in a wrongful death action.
- Workplace Accidents – Wrongful death actions can arise from deaths on the job. In most cases, workers’ compensation will pay certain death benefits. In certain situations, if a non-employer third party did something wrong that led to the death, it may be possible to bring a wrongful death claim.
- Criminal Activity – Someone who commits a crime against someone else could find themselves on the receiving end of a wrongful death lawsuit. It may come as a surprise to some, but there is no requirement that a person be convicted of their crime before the family can bring a wrongful death lawsuit. The reason for this is because the state or federal government, depending on the case, is the one to bring criminal charges. These are handled through criminal court proceedings that have a higher burden of proof than civil wrongful death claims.
- Aviation Accidents – Failure to follow proper safety protocol and procedures could contribute to an aviation accident that caused your family member’s death. In some cases, you may be able to pursue a wrongful death claim in these cases.
Issues in Wrongful Death Claims
Because Alabama laws differ from many other states’ laws when it comes to wrongful death, it’s important to know some of the potential issues that you may encounter. Retaining a wrongful death lawyer in Phenix City from the start can help alleviate the risk of these.
There are typically two aspects to a wrongful death claim, one of which is called a survival action. Alabama doesn’t handle wrongful death claims like most other states, and survival actions are not as easily pursued. One way to think about a survival action claim is that it’s the personal injury claim that the injured person is no longer able to pursue since he or she is deceased. Instead, the estate steps in and brings the lawsuit for compensation on behalf of the deceased person.
If there is a negligent party, then he or she is still liable, and compensation must be paid to the deceased’s estate instead. However, in Alabama, the only way to bring a survival action is if the deceased started the case before he or she died. Other states allow the family to bring a survival action that would compensate for medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, etc.
Something else to note with Alabama law is the inability to bring a lawsuit against the driver of the vehicle if the deceased was the passenger. The idea is to prevent collusion and the temptation to bring a fraudulent claim. If your loved one died due to the negligence of the driver of a vehicle he or she was an occupant in, there may not be grounds for a wrongful death claim. The only way a claim is allowed is if there was “willful or wanton misconduct,” which might be intoxication or extreme fatigue, for example.
If you have a valid survival action, you also need to be aware of Alabama’s stance on collateral sources. Normally, any benefits received by the plaintiff, like health insurance, should not lower the amount of damages he or she can recover from the defendant. However, Alabama is one of the few states that allow evidence of this to be introduced. This means you could potentially see a lower award if the decedent had medical insurance that picked up some of their expenses.
Because of the way wrongful death claims are handled in Alabama, you must open a probate administration with the appropriate court as well. The probate must remain open until the wrongful death claim is resolved, as damages are distributed according to intestate laws, not a person’s will or trust.
A Compassionate Phenix City Wrongful Death Attorney Can Help
As you can see, wrongful death claims in Alabama can be complex, and there are a number of rules and laws at play that can change the entire outcome of a case. It’s important that you don’t try to navigate the legal waters on your own.
A Phenix City wrongful death lawyer can help with every stage of the legal process so you can concentrate on dealing with family matters. We can handle everything from the initial claim and lawsuit up to pursuing the case at trial. You need someone who can let you know what your legal options are and how the case will proceed.
We can also help you with the probate process of opening the estate administration that is needed to handle the distribution of funds if the case is successful.
If your family member was killed due to someone else’s negligence or willful conduct, contact the Bence Law Firm LLC today to schedule a free initial consultation. Let us evaluate your case and advise you on the legal steps necessary to pursue a wrongful death claim in Alabama.