Wrongful Death Lawsuits: Pursuing Justice In Queens

After the death of a loved one, some surviving family members may be eligible to pursue financial compensation. When someone dies due to negligence or wrongful conduct, New York allows survivors to file a wrongful death lawsuit, pursuing a wide range of damages.

Filing A Wrongful Death Lawsuit In Queens

Wrongful death lawsuits, however, can be complex. Legal claims involving the death of a loved one come under the heading of specific laws, which vary widely from state to state. It’s extremely important to contact a local attorney, preferably a lawyer with experience handling wrongful death lawsuits, before beginning this process.

Cemetery in Queens For Those Who Died

In this guide, our experienced Queens injury attorneys will help you understand the basics of New York’s wrongful death laws, explaining who can file a claim, what kind of damages can be pursued and when the lawsuit must be filed.

New York Wrongful Death Laws

The specific laws that govern wrongful death lawsuits in Queens are found in New York’s Estates, Powers and Trusts Law, Article 5 Part 4. The law outlines, among other things, who can file wrongful death lawsuits, what counts as a “wrongful death” and the time limits that must be met to start a claim. We’ll cover all of these requirements in detail below, but first, let’s look at the basic right to file a wrongful death lawsuit, as stated in New York’s Estates, Powers and Trusts Law:

“The personal representative, duly appointed in this state or any other jurisdiction, of a decedent who is survived by distributees may maintain an action to recover damages for a wrongful act, neglect or default which caused the decedent’s death against a person who would have been liable to the decedent by reason of such wrongful conduct if death had not ensued.”

Hidden behind the legal jargon is a fairly straight-forward right. When someone dies because of another person’s negligence or wrongful conduct, survivors may be able to pursue monetary compensation from the responsible party. Which survivors can pursue the lawsuit, however, is anything but simple in New York.

Who Can File A Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

As we’ve seen, New York State law only grants the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit to the personal representative of the deceased’s estate. Some family members, even immediate family members, will not be able to initiate the lawsuit themselves. Only this personal representative, someone appointed to handle the deceased’s remaining financial concerns, can file the claim. The lawsuit itself, on the other hand, can demand damages to compensate the deceased’s “distributees.” One of these “distributees” can be the estate’s personal representative, but that isn’t a requirement.

In short, the personal representative must file the lawsuit, but the lawsuit can be filed on behalf of surviving family members, along with the deceased’s estate.

What Is A Personal Representative?

In New York, personal representatives are appointed by a Surrogate’s Court. There are five Surrogate’s Courts in New York City, one for each borough. These courts were established to handle matters involving the legal affairs of people who have passed away, including the administration of estates.

Most wills designate a specific individual who will serve as the estate’s personal representative (PR). In that case, being appointed by the Court is usually rather simple. When someone dies intestate, without having a will, the situation is a little more complex. The Surrogate’s Court will need to make a decision about who to appoint as the PR. The Court uses a basic order of priority to make this choice:

  • Surviving spouse
  • Children
  • Grandchildren
  • Mother or father
  • Brothers or sisters
  • Other distributees who are eligible to become personal representatives, with priority given to the individual entitled to the largest share of the estate

No matter who the Court appoints, this personal representative will have the exclusive right to file a wrongful death lawsuit, on behalf of both the deceased’s estate and applicable distributees. Note that where wrongful death lawsuits are concerned, New York’s courts acknowledge personal representatives appointed in jurisdictions outside New York, too.

Distributees: Spouse, Children Or Parents

The law says that “distributees” can share in the proceeds of a settlement or jury verdict, but what are distributees?

“Distributee” has a specific legal definition, itself established by New York’s Estates, Powers and Trusts Law. Generally, the court will consider surviving spouses and children to be the first  “distributees” who can receive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. However, if the deceased is not survived by a spouse or child, damages can also be secured by parents, grandparents or great grandparents. Any one of these parties can, in principle, be considered distributees.

The 5 Elements In A Wrongful Death Lawsuit

To establish a valid claim for wrongful death, the lawsuit must prove five separate elements:

  1. a death occurred
  2. the death was caused by the defendant’s wrongful conduct
  3. the deceased could have pursued the same cause of action, if they had lived
  4. the deceased is survived by at least one person who has suffered a loss because of the death
  5. the death caused specific monetary damages

Wrongful death lawsuits often follow after criminal trials, specifically murder trials. In these cases, “wrongful conduct” is usually a shorthand for “intent to cause harm.” Intent isn’t required, though. Wrongful death lawsuits can also be filed after tragic instances of medical malpractice, fatal car accidents or after lengthy exposures to harmful workplace substances. These lawsuits normally center around the concept of negligence, carelessness that, in some cases, can make one person or company liable for the damages of another person.

Wrongful Death Damages In Queens

Wrongful death lawsuits can be accurately thought of as two different types of claims that are routinely joined together. On one hand, there are claims to compensation made by the deceased’s estate. On the other, there are claims made by the deceased’s survivors. Courts normally join these two types of claims into one lawsuit to conserve judicial resources.

Pain & Suffering Claim

Many wrongful death lawsuits make a claim for “pain and suffering” damages, which would cover the pain and suffering experienced by the deceased prior to their death.

In some states, making legal claims on behalf of someone who has died isn’t allowed. Lawmakers in other states have decided that, after a person passes away, any claim to pain and suffering that they might have had during life is extinguished. New York, however, transfers these claims to the decedent’s estate. Thus, the estate’s personal representative can bring a claim for these pain and suffering damages.

In a successful lawsuit, these damages would ultimately be distributed to the estate’s beneficiaries, along the lines set out in the decedent’s Last Will and Testament. When the deceased did not leave a Last Will and Testament, New York has a “law of intestacy,” which deals with allocating the proceeds of a lawsuit. In most cases, the damages will be divided between a surviving spouse and the decedent’s children.

Wrongful Death Claim

The second aspect of most wrongful death lawsuits is what we call a “wrongful death claim.” These claims are made, not on behalf of the deceased or the deceased’s estate, but on behalf of surviving loved ones, specifically family members and people who were financially dependent on the decedent.

New York does not allow survivors to claim damages for their own pain, suffering or emotional trauma. Only strictly financial damages are allowed, and these can vary widely from case to case. In the past, survivors have made claims for damages like:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • medical and nursing care directly related to the decedent’s final illness or injury
  • wages that the decedent could not earn due to their final illness or injury
  • any lost inheritance that could have gone to the decedent’s children

New York also takes into account the huge financial hole that the loss of a loved one can leave behind, allowing family members to claim damages for the value of services and parental care that the deceased could have provided.

Wrongful Death Statute Of Limitations

In New York, survivors have only two years from the date of their loved one’s death to file a claim for compensation. This is a firm time limit, known as a “statute of limitations” in legal circles. Attempt to file a wrongful death lawsuit more than two years after your loved one’s death and it is highly likely that your case will be dismissed without a second thought.

There are two statutory exceptions to the general two-year time restriction on wrongful death lawsuits:

  • lawsuits filed on behalf of people whose deaths were caused by the terrorist attacks on September 11 can be filed up to 2.5 years after the decedent’s death
  • when a criminal action has been initiated against the same defendant (over the same “wrongful act”), survivors have at least 1 year from the end of the criminal action to file their own civil lawsuit for financial damages

The latter exception was instituted primarily to assist families after the death of a murder victim.

Contact A Queens Wrongful Death Lawyer

Did your loved one die because of someone else’s negligence? Our New York City personal injury attorneys may be able to help. Contact our lawyers today to receive a free consultation. You can learn more about your family’s legal options and rights at no cost and no obligation.