Who Are Wrongful Death Beneficiaries?
When someone negligently, recklessly, or intentionally takes another person’s life in Florida, the family members of the decedent may have the right to hold the wrongdoer accountable in civil court for monetary damages. The court-appointed personal representative of the estate brings the lawsuit forward on behalf of the decedent’s wrongful death beneficiaries.
In some states other than Florida, the law allows a jury to award damages for the full value of the decedent’s life. In those states, the jury hears evidence about what the person was likely to do had they lived a normal life and then awards monetary damages for the loss.
Things like whether the person would have gone to college, gotten married, or had children are factored into the value of the loss of life. In Florida, these damages for the value of the decedent’s life are not allowed. Florida also does not allow damages for the pain and suffering of the decedent up until the time of their death unless the person died from nursing home abuse or neglect.
In Florida, the beneficiaries entitled to recover for their losses are:
- People legally dependent on the decedent
In addition, parents are entitled to recover their damages, but only when there are no other beneficiaries. The circumstances under which each beneficiary can recover are described below:
- All spouses all the time
Spouses are entitled to recover damages for the loss of support and services, loss of companionship and protection, and mental pain and suffering.
- All minor children all the time
Minor children under 25 years old are entitled to recover damages for loss of support and services, loss of parental companionship, instruction and guidance, and mental pain and suffering.
- Adult children when there is no spouse (except in medical malpractice)
Adult children aged 25 and older are entitled to recover damages for loss of support and services, loss of parental companionship, instruction and guidance, and mental pain and suffering.
- Parents of deceased minor children all the time
Parents of minor children under 25 years old are entitled to recover damages for mental pain and suffering.
- Parents of deceased adult children if there is no spouse and no children (except in medical malpractice)
Parents of adult children aged 25 or older are entitled to recover damages for mental pain and suffering.
- Legal dependents
People who are legally dependent on the decedent for financial support are entitled to recover damages for their loss of financial support and services.
Children do not have to be the decedent’s natural-born children or related to the decedent by blood to be considered beneficiaries who are entitled to recover damages. But if they are not natural born, they must be legally adopted before the decedent’s death to recover damages for anything other than financial losses.
This means that children the decedent raised but are not natural-born and not adopted are not entitled to recover damages for their loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance, and for mental pain and suffering.
Only the spouses, children, and parents are beneficiaries entitled to damages under the Florida Wrongful Death Act. Furthermore, these beneficiaries are entitled to recover damages only in the circumstances described above. This means that brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and other blood relatives are never entitled to recover damages for their emotional losses. These family members are entitled to recover financial losses if they were financially dependent on the decedent. But this is so rare that, in reality, it almost never happens.
If a beneficiary of the decedent dies, the beneficiaries of the beneficiary do not take over the claim. Instead, the claim dies with the death of the beneficiary. If there are no other beneficiaries, this can sometimes end the lawsuit with no one recovering.
When this happens, the person who caused the decedent’s death may never be held accountable for their negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct. An example of this happening would be when the decedent had a spouse but no children.
Since the spouse would be the only beneficiary entitled to recover damages, if the spouse died before the wrongful death lawsuit was resolved, the spouse’s claim would be limited to lost support and services up until the spouse’s death. The amount recoverable if this happens is often too small to make it worth pursuing.
Wrongful death lawsuits apply in situations where the person who died could have brought a personal injury action against the defendant had they lived. Survivors could file this kind of legal action in the following situations:
- Medical malpractice, in which a doctor failed to diagnose a patient’s condition or acted negligently, causing the patient to die.
- Intentional killing, in which a person killed another person on purpose. A wrongful death action would be a civil matter, and it would be separate from a criminal case if the person who killed the person is facing criminal charges.
- Vehicle accident, in which a person dies due to negligence or carelessness on the part of the person operating the vehicle. Examples include drivers who failed to heed traffic laws or traffic signals, driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both.
The only person who has the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit is the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. Often, the decedent has a will that names someone as the personal representative. Most of the time, the courts will honor the decedent’s wishes and appoint the person named in the will as the personal representative. If no one is named in a will, then Florida’s statutes create a list of people who have priority.
If you hire an attorney to handle your wrongful death case, they will have to prove negligence occurred that caused or led to the decedent’s death. This means they will have to show, based on the evidence, that:
- The liable party owed the decedent a duty of care.
- The liable party failed to meet that duty by exhibiting negligence or carelessness.
- This negligence caused the decedent a fatal injury.
- The decedent’s death brought losses upon the decedent’s beneficiaries, and they are owed compensatory damages.
The decedent’s personal representative generally has two years from the date of the decedent’s death to bring a wrongful death action forward, per Florida Statutes § 95.11 (4)(d). Our personal injury lawyer can tell you if your situation involves exceptions to this timeline.
Sometimes, there is hostility between the person named the personal representative and the wrongful death beneficiaries. Florida law protects the beneficiaries in this circumstance because the attorney representing the estate of the decedent has a duty to the estate, not to the personal representative.
This means the attorney bringing the lawsuit has a legal duty to ensure all beneficiaries are identified and that a claim is brought on their behalf. The lawyer also has a duty to ensure each beneficiary’s claim is maximized. This means each wrongful death beneficiary will get an opportunity to demonstrate their losses. It also means the attorney will provide guidance to each beneficiary to ensure this happens.
An example of this happening is the situation where the decedent had children with multiple partners. All the children are legally beneficiaries entitled to damages. The personal representative of the estate would not be able to ignore pursuing a claim of any of the children not related to the personal representative. Instead, the personal injury attorney representing the estate would have a legal duty to identify all the child beneficiaries, ensure all their claims are brought, and ensure all their claims are maximized.
Most wrongful death lawsuits are settled without the need for a jury trial. The attorney representing the estate will negotiate the settlement based on the experience of what a jury is likely to award to each beneficiary. However, the actual settlement can sometimes be less than what a jury would award because the settlement has to take into account the possibility of losing.
If the case settles before trial, the wrongdoer will not allocate what amount goes to each beneficiary. Instead, the wrongdoer will pay one lump sum. The personal injury attorney representing the estate will then subtract attorney fees, costs, and any medical liens. What is left over will be split between the beneficiaries.
If the beneficiaries cannot agree on how to split their portion, the court will hold a hearing to decide how to apportion the money. In addition, anytime one of the beneficiaries is a minor, the court must approve the settlement and the allocation among the beneficiaries.
For a free legal consultation, call (813) 259-0022
An Unsettled Case Usually Heads to Trial
If the case is not settled, then a jury trial will be held. The jury will first decide if the person accused of wrongdoing is guilty of negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct that caused the decedent’s death. If the jury decides the conduct was not negligent, reckless, or intentional, or if it decides the conduct did not cause the person’s death, then no damages will be awarded.
On the other hand, if the jury decides the wrongdoer’s conduct was negligent, reckless, or intentional, and the jury decides the conduct caused the decedent’s death, then they will decide how much damages to provide for each beneficiary.
To do this, the jury will hear testimony from the beneficiaries and from other witnesses regarding how the decedent’s death affected each beneficiary. Then the jury will identify in writing a specific amount of money in damages to go to each beneficiary. Attorney fees and costs will then be subtracted, and each beneficiary will get the remainder.
We’re Here to Help You With Your Wrongful Death Case
Distasio Law Firm has handled numerous wrongful death cases over the years. We know Florida’s laws, we know the defense experts, and we know how to prove your case.
If your loved one was the victim of wrongful death by someone’s negligence, we are confident that we can help you hold the wrongdoer accountable in civil court. Call us today for a free, no-obligation case evaluation at (813) 259-0022.