Who is Entitled to Collect on a Wrongful Death Claim in North Carolina?

If you recently lost a loved one in a fatal accident, you should know about the legal rights that you and your family members may have. Depending on your relationship with the accident victim and the circumstances surrounding his or her death, North Carolina’s laws may give you the right to file a lawsuit. The Charlotte wrongful death attorneys of Dewey, Ramsay & Hunt, P.A. can help you understand the rules for suing after your spouse or a relative is killed in an accident in North Carolina.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in NC?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accidents were the third leading cause of death in North Carolina in 2016, claiming more than 5,470 lives that year. That makes North Carolina the state with the eighth-highest number of accidental deaths – despite having only the tenth-highest number of residents.

These statistics show that thousands of North Carolinians suffer fatal injuries every year. These injuries are often related to car accidents or accidental falls, which the CDC highlights as common causes of accidental death.

When a person is accidentally killed in North Carolina, his or her surviving loved ones may wish to take legal action by suing the person or business responsible. However, while dozens of people may want to take action, only certain individuals have the legal right to sue under North Carolina’s wrongful death laws.

In order to understand these laws, you need to know a few terms. In a wrongful death case, the “decedent” is the person who was killed, and the person filing the lawsuit is the “plaintiff.” The plaintiff in a North Carolina wrongful death case must be the decedent’s personal representative, who can sue on behalf of the decedent’s family members and estate. Depending on how the personal representative was appointed, he or she might be referred to as the “executor” or “executrix.”

If the decedent died without a will and never appointed a personal representative, the court will have to step in. In this type of scenario, it is typical for courts to name the decedent’s spouse, one of his or her parents, or, if they are legal adults, one of the decedent’s children as the personal representative.

How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid Out?

Contrary to depictions in movies and TV shows, few legal claims culminate in trials. The majority are resolved outside of court through a mutual agreement known as a “settlement,” which is negotiated between the parties over the course of several months to several years, depending on the complexity of the case and the defendant’s willingness to make a reasonable settlement offer. Some settlements must be kept confidential, depending on the situation.

In North Carolina, wrongful death settlements can include different types of “damages,” or financial compensation. Some damages are meant to compensate financial losses, such as funeral expenses, while others are meant to compensate physical or emotional pain and suffering. Examples of damages in a wrongful death settlement may include:

  • Burial expenses and funeral costs
  • The decedent’s medical bills, such as the costs of medication, surgery, and hospital or hospice admission
  • The loss of care, protection, income, companionship, and guidance
  • The pain and suffering the decedent experienced

The damages on the list above are all considered “compensatory” damages, because they attempt to compensate the plaintiff. In some cases, additional damages called “punitive” damages are available. Unlike compensatory damages, which are meant to make the plaintiff whole, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant. For this reason, state law makes punitive damages available only in situations where the defendant “wrongfully caus[ed] the death of the decedent through malice or willful or wanton conduct.”

These aren’t just descriptive words; they are legal terms with specific meanings. The term “malice” describes “personal ill will” that drove the defendant to harm the victim. When a person acts with “willful or wanton conduct,” it means he or she knowingly, deliberately ignored (or was indifferent to) the victim’s basic rights to safety. In other words, acting with willful or wanton conduct means taking an action, despite knowing that action “is reasonably likely to result in injury, damage, or other harm.”

Even if the decedent specified his or her financial wishes in a will, distribution of damages will generally be determined by the North Carolina Intestate Succession Act, because the damages are not considered part of the decedent’s estate. A wrongful death attorney can help your family understand how wills and state laws impact the distribution of settlement proceeds, and how matters like inheritance, government benefits, and taxes are impacted by wrongful death awards.

Charlotte, NC Wrongful Death Attorneys Can File Your Claim

If you lost your spouse, child, one of your parents, or another family member in a fatal accident, the car accident wrongful death lawyers of Dewey, Ramsay & Hunt, P.A. can help you fight for justice. Our attorneys have decades of experience assisting plaintiffs with wrongful death claims, and are here to protect and uphold your family’s legal rights throughout the process. We handle claims related to car accidents, truck accidents, construction accidents, and other types of accidents in North Carolina.

We’ll never charge you legal fees unless we obtain compensation for you. For a free consultation with our Charlotte personal injury attorneys, contact Dewey, Ramsay & Hunt online, or call our law offices at (704) 377-3737.