New Jersey Wrongful Death Lawyers
Losing a family member to an act of negligence, motor vehicle accident, work accident, or medical error is a devastating experience with life-changing consequences. New Jersey law provides families who have lost a loved one due to negligence a way to seek compensation for their loss through a civil action. The New Jersey Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-4, and Survival Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, provide the legal framework for what is commonly known as a “Wrongful Death” lawsuit.
Emotional devastation isn’t the only fallout from an untimely death. There is typically a grave financial impact as well. The Wrongful Death and Survival Acts, enacted by the New Jersey legislature, provide the surviving heirs of a deceased person the ability to pursue a variety of economic and non-economic damages from the negligent parties who caused the untimely death. Each statute sets forth a distinctly different type of claim, and both are discussed herein.
The New Jersey Wrongful Death Act
The Wrongful Death Act applies to loss of life due to “neglect, a wrongful act or default of another.” In these cases, the estate or the heirs of a deceased individual may pursue compensation for the economic losses that have been sustained, and will be sustained in the future, as a result of the wrongful death. These damages are strictly financial in nature and may include reimbursement of medical and funeral expenses, as well as the value of lost support, services, guidance, and prospective inheritance from the decedent. If the deceased family member didn’t generate income, the services they performed at home have recoverable value. Damages for emotional distress to the heirs of the decedent are not permitted under the Wrongful Death Act, though they may be separately available if the negligent death was witnessed by a family member. (See Portee Claims below)
Some specific examples of these economic losses are as follows:
- Medical bills
- Loss of current and future financial support
- Loss of household services
- Loss of companionship
- Funeral expenses
- Loss of assistance and care
- Medical expenses
- Loss of parental guidance
Calculation of economic damages under the Wrongful Death Act is based, in part, on the deceased individual’s age, life expectancy, earnings capacity, and character. Because every individual’s circumstances and background are different, available economic damages will differ in every case. Typically, the opinion of a qualified expert economist is required to accurately calculate and support a claim for economic damages under the Wrongful Death Act.
Wrongful Death Claim Beneficiaries
To file a claim under the Wrongful Death Act in New Jersey, you must be a legal heir. You have priority if you relied on the deceased individual for financial support. The typical hierarchy is as follows.
- Children and spouse of the decedent
- Dependent Parents – in cases where the victim was unmarried/widowed and childless
- Other dependent relatives, i.e. siblings, nieces and nephews – in situations where the decedent had no surviving children or spouse
The victim’s heirs may be awarded damages in a successful wrongful death action. These funds are not part of the decedent’s estate, and creditors have no claim on these moneys.
The New Jersey Survival Act
One big difference between New Jersey’s Wrongful Death Act and the state’s Survival Act involves non-economic damages. The Survival Act allows for the pursuit of damages that are not financial in nature by the estate of a deceased person. Survival claims are designed to recover damages for the losses suffered by the deceased victim, rather than the damages experienced by the victim’s family members.
The damages sought in these actions represent the conscious pain and suffering experienced by the decedent from the time immediately following the catastrophic incident, up until death. Basically, the case is litigated in much the same way that a personal injury claim is pursued when the victim survives. Essentially, had the victim survived the accident or injury, they would have been able to bring a personal injury suit for damages sustained. Instead, beneficiaries of the deceased – typically, spouses, parents and/or children – sue on behalf of the decedent.
In determining the value of these damages, consideration must be given to numerous factors, including the degree of consciousness of the decedent following the accident, the severity and duration of the pain and suffering experienced by the victim, and the degree of apprehension of impending death. For example, the pain suffered by a decedent who survived for some time following the accident before succumbing may be viewed as greater than that of a victim who died instantaneously at the scene or immediately thereafter. The value of non-economic damages available under the Survival Act will differ in every case and will be influenced by the specific facts of the case.
Damages awarded in a successful survival action are allotted to the decedent’s estate. This means they are added to all the assets in the victim’s estate. As such, estate creditors may pursue payment before the beneficiaries receive any inheritance due them.
Types of Wrongful Death Accidents/Incidents
Certain fact patterns are more prevalent than others in wrongful death actions. However, the legal basics call for a duty to the victim, breach of that duty, causation, and actual damages. These legal criteria are present in a wide range of situations, often similar to personal injury claims. The following are examples of events that may result in wrongful death actions.
- Vehicle Accidents
- Workplace Injuries
- Medication Errors
- Medical Malpractice
- Toxic Exposure
- Defective Products
- Construction Accidents
- Aviation Accident
- Mining Accident
Portee Claims in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Portee claims were established in the seminal New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Portee v. Jafee, 84 N.J. 88. These claims address traumatic situations where a person observes the catastrophic injury or death of a spouse or other immediate member. In the precedent-setting case, a mother helplessly watched her son struggle in agony from his injuries and ultimately die in an elevator shaft over a four-and-a-half-hour period. After suffering extreme depression, and attempting suicide due to her horrific experience, the mother filed a lawsuit against the building owner and the elevator company.
In Portee, the New Jersey Supreme Court established a new cause of action for “negligent infliction of emotional injuries unaccompanied by the risk of physical harm.”
The action is for the infliction of severe emotional distress. To prevail, the individual filing the claim, the Claimant, must meet four elements:
- Negligence by the accused party, the Defendant, must be the cause of the severe injury or death;
- The claimant and the decedent or injured individual must be married, intimate or have a familial relationship;
- The claimant must have witnessed the death or injury; and
- As a result of this experience, they have experienced serious emotional distress.
While separate from a wrongful death claim, a Portee claim may accompany these types of lawsuits if a loved one observed the death of a family member that was due to negligence and then suffered extreme, enduring emotional anguish because of it.
Seeking Damages in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
The Wrongful Death Act and Survival Act provide the legal framework for New Jersey wrongful death lawsuits, and must be given careful consideration when preparing a case. Additional factors to be considered are the applicable statute of limitations, determining who will represent the estate in the lawsuit, the proper jurisdiction and case venue, proving the liability of the defendants, demonstrating damages, allocating the proceeds of any settlement or judgment, and more. It is thus advisable that families of deceased individuals contact an experienced New Jersey Wrongful Death Lawyer if they have lost a loved one due to the negligent acts or omissions of others.
If you have lost a loved one due to the negligence of another, we are available to discuss your case. Contact The Reinartz Law Firm to speak with a lawyer and begin the process of seeking justice.