This page is about wrongful death law in the District of Columbia. The purpose is to explain how wrongful death lawsuits work in Washington, D.C., and who is eligible for either settlement compensation or a jury payout. We also explain the second and sometimes equally important cause of action in death cases in the District, a survival action. This claim provides a second path of compensation for the victim’s loved ones.
What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action taken when a person dies due to the negligence or intentional actions of another individual or entity. It aims to compensate the surviving family members for their losses, including loss of support, services, lost prospect of inheritance, and medical and funeral expenses.
What Is a Survival Action?
Many wrongful death lawyers in the District of Columbia combine survival actions under the umbrella of wrongful death lawsuits. But a survival action is different from a wrongful death lawsuit. Wrongful death claims compensate, as we discuss just above, the deceased person’s loved ones for their own personal losses. A survival action is essentially the personal injury claim that the deceased person could have pursued had they lived. It seeks compensation for the pain and suffering that the deceased experienced from the time of injury until their death, as well as any financial losses incurred during that time, such as medical expenses and lost wages.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Washington D.C.?
Under D.C. Code § 16-2701, a wrongful death action may be brought by the personal representative of the deceased’s estate. This representative could be named in the deceased’s will or appointed by the court if no will exists. In most cases, the representative is a close family member such as a spouse, adult child, or parent.
What Must be Proven in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Like any personal injury claim, a wrongful death lawsuit in the District of Columbia must establish that:
- The defendant had a duty of care to the deceased.
- The defendant breached this duty of care.
- This breach of duty was a direct and proximate cause of death.
- The death resulted in damages.
These are the same elements as a negligence claim. The burden of proof, as always, lies with the plaintiff, who must establish these elements by a preponderance of the evidence – meaning it is more likely than not that defendant was negligent and the negligence caused the death.
Damages in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
In a successful wrongful death claim, damages awarded aim to compensate for both the financial and emotional losses endured by the surviving family members. Here are some categories of damages you might recover:
- Economic Damages: These cover quantifiable losses such as medical and funeral expenses, the decedent’s future earning capacity, loss of inheritance, and the value of the services that the deceased would have provided.
- Non-Economic Damages: These aim to compensate for less tangible losses, like mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of companionship, care, protection, and guidance the deceased would have provided.
It’s important to note that D.C. law doesn’t cap damages in wrongful death claims, meaning there’s no legal limit to the amount of compensation a jury can award.
Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Under D.C. Code § 16-2702, a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within two years from the date of death. This deadline to file a lawsuit is known as the statute of limitations. Missing this window often means losing the right to compensation, making it crucial to act promptly after your loved one’s death.
Key DC Wrongful Death and Survival Action Cases
Herbert v. District of Columbia, 808 A.2d 776 (D.C. App. 2002):The District of Columbia’s Wrongful Death Act is designed to provide a remedy whereby close relatives of the deceased who might have expected maintenance or assistance from the deceased had he lived, may recover compensation from the wrongdoer commensurate with the loss sustained.
Hoodbhoy v. District of Columbia, 282 A.3d 1092 (D.C. App. 2022): Public duty doctrine barred a widow’s wrongful death and survival action alleging that the District of Columbia caused her husband’s death by negligently failing to comply with conditions of involuntarily committed shooter’s conditional release from the hospital, to warn his neighbors of his propensity for violence, and to ensure that he was not using illegal drugs or obtaining firearms, despite widow’s contentions that greater risk to shooter’s neighbors created a special duty to those neighbors, and that doctrine did not apply when District officials breached mandatory duties, absent showing that District assumed a special duty to husband above and beyond what it owed general public.
Wrongful Death Verdicts & Settlements in DC
Below are summaries of verdicts and reported settlements from DC wrongful death cases.
$1,251,725 Verdict: Wrongful death action based on stillbirth of the plaintiff’s infant child. Lawsuit alleged that the doctors handling the childbirth were negligent in failing to recommend adequate and timely fetal testing in response to her complaints of decreased fetal movement and this delay in testing caused the death of her fetus.
$15,200,000 Verdict: A man and woman in their mid-twenties died when they reportedly were tenants on the third floor of a residential building owned and managed by the defendants. The fire occurred at the building in the middle of the night while they were sleeping, and they allegedly were unable to exit the building due to building defects and hazards. Lawsuit was brought based on premises liability theory.
$801,779 Verdict: This wrongful death and survival action was brought after a man suffered fatal head injuries and died on when he was struck as a pedestrian in a crosswalk by a vehicle operated by the defendant. Lawsuit alleged that the defendant negligently failed to stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk.
$187,300 Verdict: Wrongful death action brought against the DC police department based on the allegedly unlawful shooting death of a young man during a confrontation with police.
Contact a DC Wrongful Death Lawyer
Contact the DC wrongful death lawyers at Miller & Zois for a free consultation. Call us at 800-553-8082 or contact us online.