Wrongful Death Claims: Proving Liability

Posted by Randy Andrus | Jan 11, 2022

The unexpected and wrongful death of a loved one is a brutal pain to bear. On top of the emotional and psychological toll typically involved in a wrongful death case, the family is often left with medical bills, funeral costs, lost income, and other financial strains. While filing a wrongful death claim won't take away the pain, it may help you begin to heal and recover emotionally and financially. A few weeks ago, we outlined the four elements needed to file a wrongful death suit in Utah. In this article, we'll expand on those elements to explain how liability is proven in a wrongful death civil suit. 

If someone else's negligence or intentional act has caused the death of your loved one, please give our wrongful death attorney in Utah a call today at 801-535-4645. Alternatively, you can fill out our confidential online form to request an initial consultation where we will review the facts of your case. Unfortunately, no one can erase the difficulty this has brought you, but a wrongful death claim may help your loved one get the legal justice and closure they deserve. 

Negligence in a Wrongful Death Suit

In a wrongful death case, negligence or an intent to harm must exist. The way to prove negligence is with four elements: duty of care, breach of duty of care, causation, and damages. While meeting the burden of proof in a wrongful death civil suit is typically easier to meet than in criminal cases where the burden of proof is “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” proving negligence may be complex and strenuous, depending on your specific case. To prove negligence, various forms of evidence, expert witness testimony, accident forensics, and more may be needed. The evidence presented will be considered, and the jury will need to decide if, based on that evidence, the defendant's actions “more likely than not” resulted in the death of the deceased. 

Below, we'll outline each of the four elements needed to prove a wrongful death case. 

The Defendant Had a Responsibility 

The defendant must have had a duty of care, meaning that he/she had an obligation to avoid harming another person or putting them in a dangerous situation. Typically, everyone owes a duty of care toward other individuals, so the remaining questions become: “to whom is the duty of care owed?” and “how broad is the duty of care?”

Determining if duty of care is applicable is not straightforward in some situations. This is because no specific laws may exist that establish how a person should act in a given situation. The law necessitates that people use “reasonable care” when performing certain activities, like driving a car or owning a business in which customer safety is expected. For example, let's say, Bob, a customer, walks into Acme Market to buy his groceries for the week. Upon entering the store, Bob slips on an unmarked wet floor, which leads to a head injury that puts him in a coma. Bob later dies as a result of his injury. In this scenario, Acme Market had a duty of care to Bob and other customers to provide a safe shopping environment. When the floor remained wet with no displayed “wet floor” sign, the store, presumably, breached this duty, leaving them open to a wrongful death suit.  

The Defendant Breached That Duty

After a duty of care has been established, the next step is to determine whether the defendant breached his/her established obligation. If it's determined that a breach of duty existed, the law acknowledges that the defendant acted negligently. When the defendant breached his/her duty, the deceased was injured or put into a dangerous situation that led to his/her death. 

Sometimes a breach in the duty of care is easily determined. In the case of a car accident, running a red light or failing to stop at a stop sign will trigger a breach, as individuals have a duty of care to observe the laws of the road. Proving that someone ran a red light and that the light was red when they passed under it may be easily proven with traffic cameras, therefore the jury would determine that the breach existed. Going back to Bob's situation in Acme Market – to determine if the store breached its duty of care, the jury would need to decide whether Acme took reasonable steps to ensure the store was safe for their customers. How often must employees reasonably check for spills? Did employees pass the spill without placing a “wet floor” sign or cleaning it up? How long had the spill been left on the floor? 

The Breach Directly Led to the Deceased's Death

Once a duty of care and its breach have been established, plaintiffs must prove that the negligence directly led to the deceased's death. During this phase, a defendant may argue that, while duty and breach existed, his actions/inactions did not directly cause the death. For example, consider that a property owner is being sued because she neglected to fix a broken stair. The deceased fell down the stairs, sustaining injuries that caused immediate death. The property owner argues that, while she was negligent in her failure to repair the broken stair, it was not the cause of the deceased's death. Instead, she may blame the deceased's untied shoes, which caused him to trip and fall down the stairs before he reached the broken step.   

Proving Damages Existed

The next step is proving that the wrongful death caused the family or heirs to directly incur damages. In a wrongful death claim, “damages” may refer to any emotional, financial, and physical losses suffered by the family as a result of the victim's death. These damages may include the following:

  • Loss of love, companionship, society, comfort, pleasure, advice, care, protection, affection, past and future
  • Loss of financial support, past, and future
  • Loss or reduction of inheritance
  • Pain and suffering which the deceased loved one experienced at the time of injury and death
  • Funeral and burial expenses and costs
  • Medical bills, expenses, and costs associated with the loved one's sustained injuries
  • Loss of wages, which may include the calculated future income and benefits the loved one would have received had he/she survived 
  • Assistance and benefit that would likely have been received had he/she lived 
  • And more

Your wrongful death attorney will help you understand which damages apply to your specific case and calculate a compensatory amount. Depending on the case, the court may also determine that the defendant must pay punitive damages in an effort to further punish him/her and deter any future behavior of similar caliber. 

Consult a Wrongful Death Lawyer Today

If you have lost a loved one too soon as a result of someone's negligence or intentional act, an attorney can help you and your loved one seek the legal justice you deserve. If you are unsure what to do next and need legal guidance, Randy Andrus and his team at Andrus Law Firm are ready to help you. With nearly four decades of trustworthy, compassionate service, Randy will help you understand your legal options and make a solid decision on how to move forward. To set up an initial consultation, please give us a call at 801-535-4645. You can also fill out our secure online form, and we'll reach back out to you. 

About the Author

Randy Andrus

BIO   Education University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law (LL.M. 1987) Business and Taxation – Transnational Practice Courses and International Bar Association Convention, Salzburg, Austria Southwestern University School of Law (J.D. 1984) Dean's List American Jurisprudence...

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