A civil claim for wrongful death can potentially arise whenever some culpable actions by an individual, business or public entity directly cause or contribute to the accidental or unnatural death of the decedent. In Georgia, wrongful death cases can be based upon any of the following tortious causes:
Negligent or careless conduct such as a car wreck
Nursing home neglect or abuse
Unsafe prescription drugs
Dangerous medical devices
Illegal sale or improper service of alcohol
Unlawful or criminal acts
A wrongful death lawsuit can be pursued in almost any circumstance where the defendant’s unsafe product or actions led to another person’s death. In Georgia, a wrongful death lawsuit can allege that the defendant acted negligently, or committed malpractice, or manufactured a defective machine, or sold a dangerous drug, or served contaminated food. A civil claim for wrongful death can also be based upon allegations that the defendant’s actions were unlawful or that he intended to hurt or kill the decedent. In sum, any culpable conduct ranging from the careless to criminal may support an action for wrongful death in Georgia and most other states.
Georgia’s Wrongful Death Statutes are very specific as to who may pursue a claim. The right to pursue a claim for wrongful death is usually restricted by statute to certain family members. The Georgia Wrongful Death Act strictly vests ownership of a claim for wrongful death as follows:
to the spouse of the decedent;
if there is no spouse, then to the decedent’s children;
if there is no spouse or children, then to the living parent(s) of the decedent; and
if there is no spouse, children or living parent, then to the administrator of the decedent's estate.
Thus, in Georgia, only the decedent’s spouse, children or parent(s), in that order of priority, are vested with the authority to file wrongful death lawsuits. Other relatives such as a sibling, uncle, aunt or grandparent have no right to prosecute the wrongful death case. If there is no surviving spouse, child or parent, then whoever is appointed Administrator of the decedent’s Estate must assert the wrongful death claim.
The types and amount of damages which can be recovered in a wrongful death case vary widely from state to state. Under Georgia law, there are three categories of damages that potentially can be sought in a lawsuit involving fatal injuries.
The full value of the life of the decedent as shown by the evidence.
Funeral, medical and other necessary expenses resulting from the injury or death of the deceased person.
medical expenses, pain and suffering by the decedent, and other damages arising during the period between the decedent’s injury and subsequent death. This is known as a “survival” claim.
The claim for the “full value of the life of the decedent” is the primary cause of action in any wrongful death case. That claim can only be brought by the family member who is authorized to assert that claim under Georgia’s Wrongful Death Act. The only claim for damages that automatically vests with the decedent’s spouse, children or parents is the claim for the “full value of the life of the decedent.” In addition, the Estate of the decedent may seek to recover the “funeral, medical and other necessary expenses resulting from the injury or death” of the decedent. This is a separate and distinct claim which can only be brought by the decedent’s Estate. If the case involves injuries that did not immediately cause the death of the decedent, the Estate can also assert what is known as a “survival action” to recover damages arising during the period between the injury-causing event and the decedent’s subsequent death. All of these claims should be joined together in the same lawsuit.
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