Some families may be able to file a civil lawsuit for compensation after the tragic death of a loved one. Wrongful death claims allow surviving family members to pursue justice after a homicide.

  • Civil murder and manslaughter lawsuits
  • Drunk driving and other car accidents
  • Third-party negligence claims

Was your loved one's death caused by a criminal act? You may be eligible to pursue compensation. To learn more about your legal options, contact our experienced wrongful death attorneys today.

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In the wake of a loved one's murder, many families are willing to work closely with law enforcement officials in their attempts to locate, arrest and charge the perpetrator with homicide, manslaughter or criminally-negligent homicide. A family's legal rights, though, don't end in the criminal justice system. Some families may also be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit, using the civil court system to secure financial compensation.

Wrongful Death Lawsuits: Homicide & Manslaughter

Most civil lawsuits filed after a murder or killing fall under the category of wrongful death claims. In principle, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed in relation to any death that was caused, either wholly or in part, due to the wrongful misconduct of someone else.


In other words, wrongful death, as a legal theory, isn't limited to cases of murder or other forms of criminal activity. Many medical malpractice lawsuits, for example, take the form of wrongful death when a patient dies due to the negligence of a medical professional. In the same way, some families may be eligible to file a private suit for damages subsequent to the criminal death of a loved one.

Civil and criminal litigation aren't mutually-exclusive. You have every right to assist in the conviction of a criminal offender and, at the same time, pursue compensation in a civil court. In practice, however, these two forms of lawsuit are very different.

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Defining Homicide & Wrongful Killings

Homicide is a broad category of acts that are generally considered criminal. Murder is only one type of homicide and, in most jurisdictions, securing a conviction for murder requires proof that the perpetrator's actions were intentional, and intentionally-taken to kill someone else.

  • First-degree murder - an intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought
    • "malice aforethought" - A somewhat antiquated term that has lost most of its importance as a condition for the conviction of first-degree murder. In contemporary murder prosecutions, most jurisdictions recognize four states of mind that constitute "malice aforethought":
      1. an intent to kill
      2. an intent to inflict grievous bodily harm
      3. a reckless indifference to an unreasonably high risk of harm to human life
      4. an intent to commit a dangerous felony
  • Second-degree murder - an intentional murder with malice aforethought, but one that is not premeditated or planned
  • Voluntary manslaughter - an intentional killing with no prior intent to kill (often referred to as a "crime of passion," occurring under circumstances in which a reasonable person would have become emotionally or mentally disturbed)
  • Involuntary manslaughter - a killing caused by an intentional or negligent act, but one that was not intended to cause death

A civil wrongful death lawsuit doesn't require proof of intent. To win compensation, families need only prove, at a minimum, that the defendant's negligence (careless disregard for the safety of others) led to the death of a loved one. As a result, the scope of potential defendants is opened to include a broader range of potential wrongdoers.

Third-Party Defendants

When criminal prosecutors pursue homicide charges, they're usually concerned almost exclusively with the crime's perpetrator, the person who actually murdered the victim. Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, can be filed against a wider array of defendants.

While it's possible to pursue wrongful death claims against a murderer, some families will also be able to demand compensation from so-called third-party defendants. The most common type of third-party wrongful death case is filed against a property owner who failed to provide the victim with adequate security. We'll take a closer look at the legal theories underpinning this area of civil law in the next section.

Property Owner Security Responsibilities

Every property owner in the United States has a basic duty to provide lawful guests, visitors and residents with a reasonable level of security against criminal activity. And property owners who fail to do so can be held accountable for violating that duty in a civil lawsuit.

An entire body of legal precedent has grown up around these negligent security claims, in which plaintiffs argue that a property owner, either residential or commercial, allowed a foreseeable criminal act to occur by providing substandard security measures. Needless to say, the legal theory encompasses criminal acts, including murder, that lead to someone's death.

A Case Of Alleged Negligent Security

To illustrate these principles in detail, let's take a look at a real-world example. In 2014, a 19-year-old college student from Kentucky was killed when a fight that broke out in the apartment directly above her own led to gunplay. A police investigation found that, as the scuffle overhead continued, a stray bullet fired through the student's ceiling struck and killed her.

One year later, the student's surviving parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her apartment complex. Court documents obtained by the Lexington Herald Leader argue that the building's ownership had a "duty to protect its tenants from reasonable foreseeable risks of danger." However, attorney investigations, the lawsuit continues, discovered that the complex had "poorly secured premises with a heightened susceptibility to criminal activity taking place on the premises."

High-Crime Areas Require Special Precautions

The complex had "no barrier fence, no access gate, or security check," the parents wrote. There were "no cameras to record or deter criminal activity from taking place on the premises."

Moreover, the apartment building's owner had a similar duty "to perform background checks on potential tenants" and to refuse housing to any "person that creates a risk of danger to other tenants." In their lawsuit, the family says that the man who owned the apartment above their daughter was "known to possess illegal drugs" and carried a loaded gun.

As we can see, the duty to provide adequate security opens property owners to a degree of liability for criminal acts that occur on their premises. In considering these claims, however, courts don't take a one-size-fits-all approach to security measures. What counts as inadequate security will change depending on the property in question. Businesses and rental properties in high-crime neighborhoods, for example, are likely to have a higher duty, since crime is common in the area. And different types of property will have their own requirements.

Criminal Intent & Burdens Of Proof

In many criminal cases, the process of proving criminal intent is the most difficult part, since it involves characterizing the state of mind a perpetrator experienced during the commission of a crime. Civil cases, on the other hand, don't require an investigation into the intent of a criminal perpetrator or third-party defendant. Intent, of course, can come into the equation, but it doesn't have to.

A Preponderance Of The Evidence

Another big difference between criminal and civil cases is the burden of proof. To secure a conviction, prosecutors are required to prove their claims "beyond a reasonable doubt." In short, the prosecution's argument must be solid that no reasonable juror could doubt its truth. Civil cases are judged by a far lower standard.

In a wrongful death suit, plaintiffs are required to prove the defendant's responsibility (for either death or personal injury) by a "preponderance (majority) of the evidence." Jurors have to assess whether it's "more likely than not" that the defendant committed the negligent or intentional acts of which they are accused. In other words, there's a 51% probability that the defendant did what you're saying they did.

Wrongful Death Laws From State-To-State

Every state has its own law on wrongful death claims. Generally, these laws explain who can file a wrongful death suit, how the case should be brought, what must be proved to secure compensation and what types of compensation are available to successful plaintiffs.

In many states, wrongful death lawsuits can only be filed by the deceased person's estate. Other jurisdictions allow close family members to file suit, even though they may not be named in the decedent's will as the estate's representative.

Two Separate Claims For Compensation

It's crucial to note that most wrongful death lawsuits actually involve two separate claims for compensation. Normally, for efficiency's sake, these two claims are bundled together into one lawsuit, but it's important to keep them separate in theory.

One claim demands compensation on behalf of surviving family members. If secured, this money will go to compensate the surviving family members for what they've lost due to their loved one's death. Funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses related to the death and, if applicable, the loss of the decedent's financial support are common examples. Most states don't allow survivors to pursue compensation for their own emotional trauma, but that's not an iron-clad rule.

Conscious Pain & Suffering

The second claim, properly known as a "conscious pain and suffering" claim is filed on behalf of the decedent's estate. This compensation is designed to compensate the estate itself for the physical pain and emotional trauma experienced by the decedent prior to their death. In practice, any compensation secured through a "conscious pain and suffering" will be distributed according to the decedent's Last Will and Testament or, if no will was prepared, an order from a family court.

Statutes Of Limitation

Alongside these requirements, every state has a statute of limitations for wrongful death actions. These laws limit the amount of time plaintiffs have to file their case. And missing out on the statute of limitations usually leads to an immediate dismissal.

A full list of state statutes of limitation is beyond the scope of this article, but most states provide between two and four years for the estate to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In most jurisdictions, that time period begins on the date of death, although some states have a "discovery rule" to extend the time limit further. And note that your own case will be governed by the state laws applicable where your loved one died, which may or may not be the state in which they lived.

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