A wrongful death lawsuit is filed by the surviving family members or spouse of an individual who has died due to the negligence or fault of another party. Generally, wrongful death lawsuits take several years before they settle or go to trial, which can be a source of frustration to many clients. However, there are several phases of a lawsuit that can lead to settlement before a case goes all the way to trial.
4 Stages of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
1. Pre-Litigation: Before the wrongful lawsuit is filed and litigation is commenced, your attorney, like personal injury lawyer Orange County can count on, will have to begin their investigation. The investigation process involves information gathering such as identifying, locating and interviewing witnesses as well as determining which party or parties are liable for the wrongful death. The pre-litigation stage involves both sides of the lawsuit identifying themselves, determining if there are key witnesses, and discovering evidence.
The investigation of a wrongful death claim will take more or less time depending on how much information is already available at the outset of the case. If the at-fault party has already been identified as well as the circumstances that led to the wrongful death (for example, a car accident), then your attorney will be able to create a more directed focus into their investigation and the process will be speed up. For example, a police report that points to clear liability of the defendant will drastically help the plaintiff’s case. On the other hand, if there is not clear liability, then the attorney must take more steps to figure out who is at fault and why.
2. Litigation: Litigation begins when a Complaint is officially filed with the court. By this stage, your attorney will likely have attempted negotiations with the opposing side – either with an insurance adjustor or the defense attorney(s) – without coming to a mutually agreed upon settlement amount. Once a complaint is filed, then the case is officially in the court system. The attorneys will engage in a process of “discovery” to get the case worked up properly. This includes interrogatories (the opposing side requesting information about the decedent and your relationship to them), depositions (you may be required to participate in an interview conducted by the opposing attorney), and record production requests (you may need to provide tax forms, pay stubs, and any relevant documentation related to the estate of the decedent), etc.
3. Pre-Trial: After a case is officially commenced in the courts, settlement discussions between your attorney and the opposing attorney will commonly take on a new level of seriousness. In any civil lawsuit such as a wrongful death case, your attorney’s first goal will be to obtain the highest compensation reasonably possible. Trial is often a “last resort” because many clients do not want to endure the stress, time commitment and unpredictability of a jury trial.
4. Trial: Once trial begins, both sides have spent quite a bit of money to get their case before a judge and jury of their peers. Both sides must assess the risk of continuing with trial and allowing 12 jurors to determine the value of the case. Sometimes the case will settle in the middle of trial because the risk is so high and a settlement is desired by both sides to get a sum certain. However, many lawyers will realize their case is moving along favorably and allow the jurors to determine the fate of the case.
A case may settle at any time, which is why it is difficult to determine how long a wrongful death case will take. The more information and evidence in your favor will often result in a quick settlement, rather than it heading all the way to trial.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from Bruno Nalu for their insight into wrongful death and personal injury practice.