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Schilling & Esposito Dec. 6, 2019

When a loved one passes away, it is one of the most devastating events that anyone ever has to go through. Time is needed to grieve over the deep loss, and it can take a while to adjust to life without them – even under the best of circumstances. When someone suffers an untimely death that was caused by someone else’s negligence or reckless actions, it can be even more difficult to take. In this situation, the question that is commonly asked over and over is, “why did this have to happen?”

How can you be adequately compensated for something like this? We all know the answer to that question – you can’t. No amount of money will bring back a lost loved one, and there is nothing that will fill the void that was left by their passing. That being said, the best our legal system can do when a wrongful death occurs is to financially compensate the victim’s loved ones. And that brings up a very complicated question – what is a human life worth?

What does “Wrongful Death” Mean?

Under Virginia law, wrongful death is defined as a death that is “caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default” of another party (Virginia Code Section 8.01-50). Essentially, a wrongful death claim is like a personal injury claim, except that the injured person did not survive, so the lawsuit must be brought on their behalf by someone close to them.

It is important to note that a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action that is completely separate from any criminal charges the party responsible for the death may incur. The responsible party may or may not be charged criminally for their actions, but regardless, that would be a separate case that is brought by the government, and it would do nothing to provide compensation to those closest to the victim.

Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Virginia?

A wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative of the decedent’s estate on behalf of the decedent’s “statutory beneficiaries”. In Virginia, there is a very specific order of beneficiaries who may collect damages from the claim:

  • Spouses and children are the highest class of beneficiaries, and if a child is deceased, their children (the grandchildren of the decedent) may be part of the claim.

  • If there is no surviving spouse, children, or grandchildren, then the next class of beneficiaries are the decedent’s parents (unless their parental rights were terminated by a court), siblings, and other household family members or family members who are dependents of the decedent.

  • If there is a surviving spouse but no children or grandchildren, then the decedent’s parent(s) may be part of the claim (along with the surviving spouse).

  • If there are no surviving members in any of the above-mentioned groups, then any other family members who would stand to inherit the decedent’s estate under Virginia’s intestacy laws would be able to file the claim.

What is a Wrongful Death Claim Worth?

There is no set dollar amount that is awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit. Rather, damages are calculated based on the specific losses incurred by the victim and the surviving family members. Damages that may be available in a wrongful death action include:

  • Medical costs that were incurred due to the decedent’s final illness or injury;

  • Lost earnings, including earnings and benefits the decedent could have reasonably been expected to earn in the future;

  • Funeral and burial expenses;

  • Sorrow and emotional distress;

  • Loss of comfort, care, companionship, and guidance;

  • Punitive damages.

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are a special category that are not meant to compensate for a victim’s losses, but rather to “punish” the responsible party when the actions that resulted in the decedent’s death were especially egregious.

Virginia places caps on certain types of damages in personal injury and wrongful death cases. Damages for medical malpractice claims are capped at $2 million for all compensable losses, and punitive damages in all cases are capped at $350,000. If a jury awards a higher amount of damages, they will be reduced by the court to the maximum amount allowed by law.

Contact an Experienced and Compassionate Virginia Wrongful Death Attorney

There is no monetary value that can be placed on human life, and no amount of money can bring back a lost loved one. But surviving family members still deserve the maximum allowable compensation to help ease the suffering, and to help ensure that parties who commit negligent or reckless acts (or omissions) that result in death are held fully accountable.

At Schilling and Esposito, we are committed to fighting hard for every dollar of compensation you deserve. Call our office today at 804-320-0950 to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys. You may also send us a message through our online contact form or stop by one of our Richmond offices in person at your convenience.