A woman mourning over a loved one's casket at a funeral, with a statue of a cherub in the foreground.

People often seek the advice of a wrongful death lawyer when they feel that the death of a loved one could have been avoided but for the negligence of another person or entity. It’s hard enough to cope with the loss of a loved one, but imagining that it could have been easily prevented can make the process much more difficult. At the same time, a surviving spouse or relative may be left with medical bills, funeral expenses, and a loss of financial support, adding more problems to their grief.

How Can a Salt Lake City Wrongful Death Attorney Help?

If we find evidence that your loved one’s death was caused by negligence, we can bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the negligent party. While wrongful death claims may include intentional acts or crimes, it’s essential to understand that they are distinct from criminal proceedings, such as murder or manslaughter trials. Unlike criminal courts, wrongful death suits do not aim to punish the defendant (although the defendant may consider the judgment a punishment). Instead, their primary focus is on seeking financial compensation from the defendant or, in many cases, from the defendant’s insurance company. By pursuing civil action, these claims provide recourse to the affected parties rather than imposing criminal penalties.

Additionally, civil suits are often needed to help surviving family members pay for final expenses and leftover medical bills. If the deceased person was the main earner in the family, their spouse and children may also need compensation for normal living expenses. No one should have to worry about paying the rent or putting food on the table while working through the grieving process.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim in Utah?

Under Utah law, the decedent’s heirs or the personal representative of their estate (sometimes called an executor) can file a wrongful death claim. People who are considered “heirs” include:

  • The decedent’s spouse
  • The decedent’s children
  • Surviving parents of the deceased
  • Minor stepchildren who were financially dependent on the decedent
  • Extended family members, if none of the above survived the decedent

The courts will give first priority to the decedent’s spouse or life partner and children.

How Long Do You Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim?

In most cases, you have two years from the date of the death to file a wrongful death claim in Utah. In a few unusual situations, you may be granted more time, but we recommend speaking with an personal injury attorney in Salt Lake City as soon as possible. Your lawyer will need time to investigate the death and gather evidence to support your claim.

How Do You Know If a Death is Wrongful?

This is a challenging question to answer on your own while grieving your loved one’s death. A wrongful death attorney can help you by going over the facts of the case to determine if anyone involved was negligent. There are three principles necessary to prove negligence:

The Defendant Owed the Decedent a Duty of Care

Whether this is true or not depends on the particular cause of death. If it was a car accident, we can generally assume that every motorist on the road has a duty of care to drive carefully and make a reasonable effort to avoid collisions. If it was medical malpractice, the doctor or healthcare provider has a duty to act in compliance with the standards of their specialty. Your lawyer can explain the applicable duty of care in your loved one’s case.

The Defendant Took Actions That Constituted a Breach of This Duty of Care

We’ll need to provide evidence to show exactly how the defendant breached their duty of care. For example, another driver caused a fatal head-on collision by driving while drunk, crossing the center line, and hitting the decedent’s car. This may seem like a simple thing to prove, but in a wrongful death case, it will require careful analysis of evidence such as witness statements, video (if available), black box data (most modern cars have event data recorders or EDRs), and any records speaking to the defendant’s intoxication (citations, arrest records, blood alcohol level results).

These Actions Directly Caused the Decedent’s Injuries and Death

It doesn’t matter how negligent the defendant was if you can’t prove this negligence directly caused the death. In other words, the fatal injury or injuries would not have happened if not for the defendant’s choices. For instance, a fatal traumatic brain injury would not have occurred if the defendant hadn’t crossed the center line and collided with the decedent’s car. Your attorney will use medical records, expert testimony, and other types of evidence to show how the breached duty of care caused the death in question.

What If the Defendant Was Tried in Criminal Court Already?

As we discussed earlier, criminal and civil courts are two separate systems. A defendant who loses in criminal court could lose their freedom or go to prison (although in some cases, they may be sentenced to probation instead). A defendant who loses in civil court could lose money, or their insurance company might pay the judgment, depending on the situation.

If the defendant was already tried in criminal court, you can proceed with a civil case against them regardless of what happened. Even if they were found not guilty in criminal court, you can still pursue a wrongful death claim in civil court because the burden of proof is much lower. A jury in a criminal case is instructed to decide if the accused is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” based on the evidence presented in a trial. A jury in a civil case is told to decide if the defendant is more likely than not guilty based on a “preponderance of evidence.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt your case if the defendant was already found guilty in criminal court, but an acquittal doesn’t necessarily hurt your case either because of the lower burden of proof for a civil trial.

Does That Mean You Have to Go to Trial?

No. We’ve described how the process works in a court case because we always need to have those standards in mind in a wrongful death claim. However, the reality is that most wrongful death claims are settled out of court. We may begin the case by filing a lawsuit and attending pre-trial hearings in the local court, but we can usually negotiate a settlement with the other party or their insurance company before going to trial. This is preferable in most cases because it spares the family members a long and stressful experience. However, there are occasionally situations where the defendant or their insurance company simply won’t agree on a reasonable settlement, and if that happens, we’re prepared to argue your case in court.

It’s important to understand that all of the standards we’ve discussed are still relevant when we negotiate a settlement. The other party’s willingness to come to a fair agreement is heavily influenced by how they perceive their odds of winning or losing in a court case.

How Much is a Wrongful Death Claim Worth?

We can’t calculate your claim’s value without knowing the details of your case. One of our first steps will be to calculate all your damages, which can be economic or non-economic. These include:

  • Costs of a funeral or burial.
  • Medical bills generated by treatment for the decedent’s final injuries or illness.
  • Loss of income or financial support. If the deceased provided some or all of the financial support for your family, we will estimate how much they would likely have earned if they’d lived.
  • Pain and suffering for you and other family members. This includes the loss of consortium, companionship, emotional support, and other benefits of a relationship.
  • Punitive damages. These are not awarded in every case, but if the defendant’s actions were particularly extreme or abhorrent, the jury may award “punitive” damages not for any particular loss but to punish the defendant further.

In some cases, we may seek to recover your damages directly from an insurance company if there is a relevant policy. For instance, most car accident claims are paid by the at-fault driver’s liability insurance. In some other types of wrongful deaths – such as crimes – there may not be a relevant insurance policy. You can still sue the responsible party, but we will first consider the defendant’s financial situation. If they have few or no assets and can’t realistically pay the judgment, it may not be worth the time, expense, and stress to pursue a claim.

Do You Have a Wrongful Death Case? Call Our Salt Lake City Wrongful Death Law Firm Today

Whether you’re convinced that your loved one’s death was preventable or wondering if it might have been, the best way to get answers is to speak with a wrongful death attorney. Please contact Valley Law Accident and Injury Lawyers for a free consultation about this matter. Your call is confidential, and there is no obligation. We’ll listen to your story, answer your questions, and explain your options for pursuing damages. Call us today at 801-810-9999.

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We have helped many clients recover from injuries resulting from car accidents in West Valley, Salt Lake City, and the greater Utah area. We are here to help you recover after an accident. If you've been injured, don't hesitate to call Valley Law Accident and Injury Lawyers for a free consultation. We have recovered millions for our clients and we are ready to fight for you.

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