A wrongful death action is brought to compensate for the pecuniary loss sustained by the beneficiaries of the decedent due to the death of the decedent. Thus a wrongful death action can be maintained for the benefit of the wife, husband, parent, and child of the person whose death was caused by the wrongful or negligent act of the tortfeasor. Heirs and next of kin of the decedent are entitled to maintain a wrongful death action. The term “next of kin” refers to those blood relatives of the decedent in existence at the time of the decedent’s death that would take the decedent’s property if the decedent died intestate[i].
In order to determine the damages suffered by the beneficiaries, the date of the decedent’s death is significant as it fixes the status and eligibility of all beneficiaries of the action. Every state has a wrongful death statute and only those persons enumerated in such acts can claim damages in the capacity of beneficiaries[ii]. Courts have further held that the classes of statutorily delineated beneficiaries must be strictly construed[iii].
It is to be noted that the person authorized to bring a wrongful death action does not have an absolute right to the damages recovered and instead brings the action in a representative capacity for the exclusive benefit of the persons entitled to recover[iv].
Moreover, state wrongful death statutes often differentiate between the capacity to bring an action and the right to share in the damages recovered. In such cases, if a person authorized to bring a wrongful death action may compromise the action and the compromise is binding upon all persons authorized to bring the action or to share in the recovery.
Compensation is awarded even when there is no surviving husband, wife, children, or parents to the decedent. In such a case, the action is deemed to have been for the benefit of a decedent’s estate and such estate is presumed to be a “deferred beneficiary.” However, in some states, the estate of the deceased is not construed as a statutory beneficiary[v].
If any of the beneficiaries are minors, a guardian would have to be appointed by the court for safeguarding the interests of such beneficiaries. In the interest of fairness, a statute may expressly limit the “next of kin” to the wife and children of the deceased[vi].
Beneficiaries are often divided into different classes based on their nature of dependency on the deceased. The first preferred class includes the spouses and children who are immediately dependent on the decedent. If there are no living members in the first preferred class, right of action inures for the benefit of the class next in line of preference. Generally, the parents and siblings of the deceased constitute the second tier of beneficiaries. Most statutes define relatives on a priority basis and “dependent on the deceased” is a condition precedent for claiming beneficiary status. However, this does not mean that a person who is not a dependent is prohibited from bringing a wrongful death action. Courts have held that a heir who is not a dependent is equally authorized to bring a wrongful-death action as one who is, although the amount of their recoveries may differ[vii].
Wrongful death statutes differ considerably in identifying the beneficiaries. In some states, parents can bring an action only in the case of minor decedents. However, some other states do not restrict beneficiary status to such levels. The rights of children in cases where parents have been divorced have been disputed in many cases. For instance, in one case, the court held that a minor, who had lived with her father and was supported by him following his divorce, could nevertheless sue for the wrongful death of her mother on the ground that a right of action referred not only to financial dependency but also to dependency for love and instruction[viii]. In the case of divorced parents bringing an action for wrongful death of the child, courts have held that “where one parent undertakes to prosecute the cause, the other is nevertheless bound by such action and the law provides for equitably apportioning any proceeds[ix].”
In the event of a parent’s desertion or abandonment or failure to support a minor child, statutes generally preclude recovery of damages for the wrongful death of such child.
In the event of the death of the beneficiary, courts have held that a beneficiary’s cause of action for wrongful death proceeds does not abate at his/her death and any award he eventually receives is distributed as part of his/her estate[x]. The purpose of a wrongful death statute is to compensate the survivor for the pecuniary injury. Thus, in the event of the death of a sole beneficiary, courts have held that the death of the sole surviving beneficiary extinguishes the right of action unless it has been carried forward into judgment. There are also contrary opinions stating that the right of action of a sole beneficiary survives to the sole beneficiary’s estate, although in a limited fashion[xi]. However, if the sole beneficiary had failed to institute a wrongful-death action prior to his/her death, a wrongful death action cannot be brought by the administrator of the decedent’s estate[xii].
[i] Cruz v. Illinois Masonic Medical Ctr., 271 Ill. App. 3d 383 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1995)
[ii] Rodgers v. Consolidated R. Corp., 136 Ill. App. 3d 191 (Ill. App. Ct. 4th Dist. 1985)
[iii] Craig v. Scandia, Inc., 634 So. 2d 944 (La.App. 2 Cir. Mar. 30, 1994)
[iv] Goodleft v. Gullickson, 556 N.W.2d 303, 306 (N.D. 1996)
[v] King v. Western Reserve Group, 125 Ohio App. 3d 1 (Ohio Ct. App., Monroe County 1997)
[vi] Paulk v. Cent. Lab. Assocs., P.C., 262 Neb. 838 (Neb. 2001)
[vii] Steed v. Imperial Airlines, 12 Cal. 3d 115 (Cal. 1974)
[viii] Zimmerman v. Cruz & Garcia, 449 So. 2d 996 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 4th Dist. 1984)
[ix] Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. v. Adams, 221 Ga. App. 705 (Ga. Ct. App. 1996)
[x] Booker v. LAL, 312 Ill. App. 3d 170 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2000)
[xi] Willis v. Duke Power Co., 42 N.C. App. 582 (N.C. Ct. App. 1979)
[xii] Blank v. Ripley, 567 F. Supp. 1531 (E.D. Mo. 1983)