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What do I do if a family member passes away because of another person's mistakes?

An unexpected death of a family member or loved one is jarring and completely devastating. Life is suddenly flipped upside down. You must deal with funeral planning, finding others to care for the kids and providing emotional support for other family members.

Perhaps most importantly, you yourself must grieve and celebrate the life of the departed loved one. The last thing you want to do is think about a lawyer or a possible lawsuit. HOWEVER, the time period immediately following a tragic death can be critical when it comes to protecting the rights of the decedent and his or her surviving family. Contacting an attorney is an important first step.

What is a wrongful death case?

Without getting too technical, the term "wrongful death case" is a general phrase in Iowa that refers to a civil lawsuit asking for money damages due to another's wrongful acts causing death. The basis for a wrongful death action can be varied but two of the most common are motor vehicle crashes and medical negligence (i.e. medical malpractice).

What are the benefits of contacting an attorney sooner rather than later?

Let's consider a fatal car crash as an example. While surviving family members are rightfully focused on grieving and making other arrangements, insurance companies will be hard at work collecting statements, examining vehicles and studying the scene of the accident - and they will not be doing it with the deceased's interests in mind. Insurance companies seek to limit losses. An attorney can organize an investigation of the crash with the interests of the surviving family in mind. A quick investigation is important because information may soon fade or disappear and the surviving family will be left with the insurance company's collected facts and conclusions.

To learn more about how Hixson & Brown has previously conducted a successful scene investigation of a fatal motorcycle collision, please click here.

An experienced attorney can explain the legal process and what steps need to be taken with respect to such things as opening an estate, life insurance, protecting children and communicating with auto insurance companies.

What damages are covered by a wrongful death award?

While the loss of a loved one cannot truly be replaced, monetary compensation can be obtained with a wrongful death case. Compensation can be recover for many different categories of damages, such as burial expenses, pre-death medical expenses, and future lost accumulation of an estate. An attorney can explain what categories of damages are available in your specific case. The exact damages available will be dependent on several factors. Who are the surviving family members asserting a claim (i.e. spouse, child, parent)? What was the deceased's age, health, education and employment status before death? In short, it is not a simple process to determine what damages are available.

Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?

The general answer is that a wrongful death claim will need to be asserted by:

  1. the decedent's estate, and possibly
  2. a combination of the decedent's surviving spouse, children or parents.

The estate will be represented by either an executor named in a will or an administrator appointed by the court. An estate is required to assert claims for certain damages such as pre-death medical expenses, pre-death pain and suffering, or future loss of estate. Surviving family members are required to assert their individual claims for loss of consortium at the same time the estate asserts its claims. These loss of consortium claims are meant to compensate for a family member's loss of companionship, fellowship and services which would have been provided by the deceased.

Time limit and individuals who can bring a case

In Iowa, a wrongful death claim will almost always need to be filed within two years of the date of death. This includes medical malpractice claims. This statutory deadline is often referred to as "statute of limitations." Since it can take time to prepare a lawsuit for filing, you should not wait to contact an attorney.

We understand that this is an immensely painful time for you and a claim will never replace your loved one. However, if you feel a wrongful death claim is appropriate or beneficial for your situation, a skilled attorney can help you through this process and be your legal voice as you focus on your family.

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