Alabama Wrongful Death Law
Alabama law allows family members to bring an action for wrongful death against a negligent party for causing the death of their loved one. However, Alabama's law is different from most of the country. While other states focus on the "value" of the lost life, Alabama law focuses on the "enormity of the wrong" committed by the defendant. The purpose of Alabama's wrongful death law is to punish the wrongdoer and deter others similarly situated from repeating the same conduct.
Serious Legal Representation for Serious Damages
If you have lost a loved one in an accident that you believe was the result of someone's misconduct or negligence, talk to an attorney at the Drake Law Firm. Our firm focuses strictly in the legal arena of fatal accidents, wrongful death damages and personal injury litigation. Fatality claims are often two legal matters. First, we will investigate to prove that your loved one died as a direct result of a negligent act on the part of a single party or multiple parties.
After proving negligence, we will work aggressively to determine the full extent of the damages, over a lifetime of loss plus significant punitive damages. After determining the full extent of the damages, we begin the negotiating process to seek full and fair compensation. Although the large majority of cases settle out of court, preparing every case to win in a trial is the only way the insurance company will be serious about a fair settlement offer.
Damages recovered under Alabama's Wrongful Death Act do not become a part of the estate. Rather, any recovery goes directly to the heirs at law pursuant to intestate succession. The fact that the deceased had a will does not change this.
Alabama Wrongful Death Procedure
Under Alabama law, a lawsuit can be brought against any party or parties whose misconduct or negligence resulted in the death of an individual. In order to qualify as a plaintiff, you must prove a relationship on which you depended for emotional or monetary support. The general statute of limitations (filing deadline) for initiating a wrongful death action is two years from the date of the death that resulted from the negligent act — even if years have passed since the accident. Alabama law is strict about adhering to the two-year statute, unlike many states that allow some exceptions for minors. The text of the wrongful death act is as follows:
Section 6-5-410. Wrongful act, omission or negligence causing death:
(a) A personal representative may commence an action and recover such damages as the jury may assess…for the wrongful act, omission or negligence of any person, persons or corporation.
(b) The damages recovered are not subject to the payment of the debts or liabilities of the testator or intestate, but must be distributed according to the statute of distributions.
(c) Such action must be commenced within two years from and after the death of the testator or intestate.
Who May Commence a Wrongful Death Action?
"Personal representative" means the administrator or executor of the estate of the deceased. Thus, until such time as letters testamentary are granted and an estate is opened, no person has standing to bring an action for wrongful death. However, in the context of a work-related death, the right of the personal representative is removed and the dependents have the right to bring the action.
With regard to the death of a minor, the parents have standing to bring the action. If the parents are divorced, then the parent having legal custody has the right.
Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations
As indicated by the Statute, Alabama's standard two-year limitation is applicable. Unlike many other situations where tolling is allowed for minors or incompetents, no such exceptions exist in a wrongful death case. Generally, a claim can never be brought after two years from the date of death.
Burden of Proof
In order to present a wrongful death claim, it must be proven that the defendant's conduct was the proximate cause of the decedent's death; "Proximate" meaning the direct or legally sufficient contributing factor. Sometimes it is not always clear how the defendant's conduct caused the death. What if the conduct merely hastened the death? Alabama law has held that if the defendant's conduct hastens or otherwise accelerates a person's death, then a lawsuit claim can be brought…as long as the decedent would not have otherwise died from the same condition or disease absent the defendant's conduct.
Amount of Award and Discretion of Jury
As noted earlier, the jury can only award punitive damages. As the name suggests, the goal is an amount of money that will sufficiently punish the defendant. The award by the jury should be large enough to punish the defendant and to deter others similarly situated form repeating the same conduct. Many large wrongful death verdicts find their way to the Supreme Court in an effort by the defendant to have the judgment amount cut or reduced. Various factors influence the decision as to whether the verdict is excessive, including assets of the defendant, insurance available, enormity of the wrong, etc.
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Our lawyers have experience handling injury claims of all severity, including minor injuries and complex, catastrophic injuries. Our Birmingham wrongful death attorneys represent victims of negligence in communities throughout Alabama and the nation. From anywhere, call us at 205-970-0800 or contact us by e-mail to arrange a free case evaluation.
Written by the Office of Whit Drake