Can Heirs Recover Punitive Damages Against a Driver Who Causes Death?

Personal Injury Lawyer

When your loved one dies due to someone else’s negligence or misconduct, you have the right to sue that person for your loved one’s wrongful death. If the death resulted from injuries your loved one sustained in a motor vehicle accident, you would sue the driver of the vehicle that caused the accident.

Wrongful death is a civil action, meaning that money damages are the only thing you can recover from the defendant if you win your lawsuit. While no amount of money can make up for losing your loved one, many family members find that winning a wrongful death lawsuit gives them not only a sense of closure, but also a sense that the defendant received justice, at least financially.

Types of Damages

Generally, you can recover two types of damages in a wrongful death suit: economic and noneconomic. Your economic damages consist of such things as bills you actually paid on the decedent’s behalf, including ambulance bills, hospital bills, funeral bills, and more. Your noneconomic damages are more subjective, but no less real. For instance, noneconomic damages include such things as the following:

  • Your loss of your loved one’s support
  • Your loss of his or her companionship
  • Your loss of his or her advice and counsel
  • Your mental and emotional anguish over his or her death

Punitive Damages

In some situations, you may also be able to recover punitive damages. These are damages that a court awards you above and beyond your economic and noneconomic damages. Their purpose is to punish the defendant, not to compensate you for your losses. 

Courts don’t always award punitive damages. In fact, it’s the exception rather than the rule. To receive this type of an award, you will need to present clear and convincing evidence at trial that the defendant’s actions or failure to act that caused the accident were deliberate, willful, wanton, or reckless. In other words, was he or she driving drunk? Was he or she driving at an excessive speed? Was his or her behavior particularly egregious?

Why You Need an Attorney

Each state has its own laws regarding wrongful death lawsuits. This is why you need to consult with a lawyer, like a wrongful death lawyer. He or she will know the specific laws that apply to your state, such as which family members can file such a suit, how long you have after the death to file, and whether or not it sets limits on the amount of damages you can recover.