Wrongful Death Statute

A statute is a written law that resulting from some type of legislative action. Wrongful death statutes are laws that were originally enacted to provide for the economic support of widows and orphans as well as a deterrent to carelessness that might result in fatal injuries.

Unlike a criminal charge of murder, a wrongful death complaint does not assume criminal intent to cause someone's death. Under the law, wrongful death and intentional murder are separate issues, and neither proceeding has any connection, influence or control over the other.

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However, a defendant who is acquitted (found not guilty) of a murder charge may still be sued for wrongful death by the victim's family.

The action that is alleged to have caused the victim's death may be intentional or it may be due to negligence. For example, Joe and Benjamin go to a bar and wind up having a brawl. In the course of the fight, Benjamin, who has seen too many Hollywood Westerns, picks up a chair and smashes Joe over the head with it. To Ben's surprise, the chair does not collapse; instead, Joe suffers a skull fracture, and dies from this injury two days later. While Benjamin had no intention of killing Joe, he is still liable for Joe's death under a wrongful death statute. (Some attorneys also might argue that the producers of the film were also partially liable.)

In another example, Popeye takes Sweetpea out for a boat ride, but neglects to put him in a life preserver. While Popeye is busy adjusting the sails, Sweetpea gets curious, climbs up on the rail, falls overboard and drowns. Again, although Popeye would never have intentionally harmed Sweetpea, his negligence resulted in the latter's death; he is therefore liable.

Current controversies notwithstanding, unborn fetuses are not covered by wrongful death statutes. Currently, an individual has no legal status until s/he is born. If however, the fetus suffers damage in the womb due to an act of carelessness or negligence, which later causes the death of the child after s/he is born live, the responsible party could be held liable under wrongful death statutes.

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