Losing someone you love and depend upon can be very frightening in terms of facing the future without someone you counted on every day. These very real and powerful emotions can turbo-charge the litigation process, and it is very important to be mindful of this energy during the complicated process of trying to place a value on the life of a human being.
In Wyoming, wrongful death cases are authorized by statute. The statute allows compensation for the next of kin where the death was caused by a wrongful act, neglect or default of another person or entity. People die every day, and just because someone dies, it does not mean that the survivors have a wrongful death case. Only those cases where the death was caused by some type of wrongful conduct does the case become actionable.
Wrongful death cases are different than other types of personal injury cases because the damages recoverable are different. In the usual personal injury case, the damages are designed to compensate the injured person, but in a wrongful death case, there is no way to compensate a deceased person. This is the part where it gets complicated. Are all lives worth the same? The moral answer to this question would probably be that all lives should be valued the same, but the reality is that this isn’t always the case.
Under Wyoming law, for example, a 40-year old breadwinner with small children would be expected to earn more money over his expected lifetime than a 90-year old grandmother, and therefore the breadwinner’s life would have a higher economic value than the grandmother. A small child would not have any earning history so the child’s life would likely be evaluated to be worth less than the breadwinner. It is interesting to note that a painting recently sold for 150 million dollars. A painting is just a piece of canvas with some paint on it. You might ask yourself why wouldn’t the life of a child or the life of a grandmother be worth more than a painting? In a wrongful death case, the value of a person’s life must be determined by the jury. This task is really not all that complicated when we consider that our society places value on things that have no established value all the time. I think it is fair to say that a life is surely worth more than the annual salary paid to a relief pitcher for the New York Yankees.
These cases are also complicated because, under Wyoming law, the number of people that may have a valid claim for wrongful death include all of the people who would be entitled to inherit property from the deceased person. This would include spouses, children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Unfortunately with wrongful death claims, estranged family members often show up to claim entitlement to the same amount of money damages as the victim’s spouse or children. Wyoming law deals with this problem by limiting the damages to the loss of probable future companionship, society and comfort. Wyoming law deals with this problem by allowing the jury to evaluate the value of the relationship between any claimant and the deceased person. Evidence is presented to show how close the relationship really was between any claimant and the deceased person. If the case were to settle prior to a jury decision and the claimants cannot agree, there is a process where a judge is asked to evaluate the loss for each individual claimant. The judge can conduct a hearing to receive evidence from all of the claimants as to the value of the loss of consortium.
Wrongful death cases are authorized by state law. A wrongful death representative must be appointed by the court to have the authority to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. There is a statutory process, which must be followed in order to get a wrongful death representative appointed.
A final complication of these cases is the two-year statute of limitations which requires that a wrongful death action be commenced within two years after the death of the deceased person. There are exceptions to this rule, but if you think you may have a wrongful death case and have any questions about any of these issues, contact a lawyer immediately. These cases do not get better with age.