What Happens When Medical Malpractice Results in A Wrongful Death? Legal Definitions of Medical Negligence

Harry M. Roth Esq.

Sep 28, 2023

The law offices of Cohen, Placitella & Roth have represented victims of medical malpractice and their families for 50 years. We also assist families who have lost a loved one in wrongful death claims.  Wrongful death claims involve an untimely death of a loved one due to another’s negligent or reckless conduct. It can be hard to understand the differences between a wrongful death claim and a medical malpractice lawsuit. But these differences can be important and can impact who can bring a claim and what damages are available.

Simply put, medical malpractice is a type of civil lawsuit that arises when a medical professional provides negligent care that causes harm to their patient. When that harm is fatal, the lawsuit is known as a wrongful death claim. And so, while some cases of medical malpractice may result in a person’s wrongful death, not every medical malpractice case does. Likewise, not every wrongful death case results from malpractice.

Lawsuits arising from a Wrongful Death

Cases involving a death are known as wrongful death cases because the right to bring such a lawsuit was created by a Wrongful Death statute. Historically, the common law did not recognize the right to bring a claim seeking damages for death and so, legislatures around the country and the federal government created the right. Wrongful Death Acts give certain family members of a person who died the right to seek damages for the losses they suffered because of their family member’s death. Whether the death was caused by medical malpractice, a car accident, a slip and fall accident, or a defective product, Wrongful Death statutes permit surviving family members to bring a claim.

In addition to creating wrongful death legislation, most states also enacted legislation that allows a decedent’s estate to bring a lawsuit seeking damages the decedent suffered from the date of the claimed negligence until their death. This is known as a survival act because the claim survives the decedent’s death. This claim is often combined with the family members’ claims for damages under a Wrongful Death Act.

The Definition of Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice is a legal cause of action that occurs when health care providers or a medical facility, through its acts or omissions, fail to meet their required duty of patient care. Medical professionals have a duty to treat their patients in accordance with the standard of acceptable care. When they fail to do so, and their failure causes a patient’s injuries, they may be liable for damages caused by their medical malpractice. Examples of medical malpractice include:

  • Failing to, or misdiagnosing a patient’s progressive or deadly disease
  • Prescribing a medication that interacts badly with the other drugs a person takes
  • Misreading x-rays or other studies
  • Committing surgical or anesthesia errors
  • Performing invasive and/or unnecessary medical treatment due to a medical error at a laboratory

Medical malpractice is prevalent. Doctors are only human, and they make human mistakes. Unfortunately, these medical errors lead to more than 250,000 deaths annually in the United States.

What Happens When Medical Malpractice Results in Wrongful Death?

When medical malpractice leads to wrongful death, a lawsuit must be brought under the Wrongful Death Act for the damages resulting to the decedent’s family members and the Survival Act to compensate the decedent’s estate for any pre-death damages. In short, to succeed in a case, you must meet the burden of proving medical malpractice caused the injuries and death and meet the elements of damage detailed in the applicable Wrongful Death and Survival Acts. A medical malpractice and wrongful death attorney can help guide you through that process.

What a Wrongful Death Claim Involves

A wrongful death claim due to medical malpractice can take two to five years to complete depending on where the lawsuit is filed and the nature of the case. Damages typically include the decedent’s final medical expenses and funeral expenses. Every state has its own wrongful death act listing the family members who may recover damages and the nature of the damages they may claim. Generally, these statutes provide that a surviving spouse, child, or, in some cases, parent may recover the pecuniary value of the financial support and services they lost as a result of their family members death.

Similarly, the claim for the decedent’s estate under a survival act will also depend on where a lawsuit is brought. Typically, these claims provide damages for the physical pain and emotional suffering the decedent suffered before their death.

Time limits in Wrongful Death Medical Malpractice Cases

Before even considering the nature of the medical treatment it is important to know that every state establishes time limits for filing lawsuits known as the statute of limitations. Each state’s medical malpractice system sets its own limits on the amount of time you have to file suit. These limitations vary widely by state, but you generally have about two years to file a claim. Because memories fade, evidence gets lost, and complex cases take time to investigate, it is important to consult with an attorney if you feel your loved one died as a result of medical malpractice. By consulting with an attorney, you avoid the risk of running out of time and jeopardizing your rights.

Proving A Medical Malpractice Case

To prove medical malpractice, you need to be able to show that the medical professional or facility breached their standard of care and that their breach of care caused damages. This requires proof not only that a medical professional was negligent but that the negligent treatment caused the harm. To prove these two elements of the claim – negligence and causation – it is necessary that your lawyer consult with doctors who are experts in the applicable field of medicine and who are qualified to render an opinion that a physician’s care was negligent and that it caused harm. Often more than one expert physician will be required to prove a case. These medical experts will work with your legal team to compile evidence of the harm that was done and determine what caused that harm.

The Damages You Can Seek in Wrongful Death Cases

As stated, the damages available in a medical malpractice case where the patient has died are defined by the Wrongful Death and Survival Acts where the lawsuit is brought. Typically, wrongful death actions compensate certain family members for the financial support provided by the decedent; the value of the services he or she provided to them; and funeral expenses and medical bills.

Survival Act damages compensate the decedent’s estate for the pain and suffering he or she endured because of the medical malpractice leading up to their death. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, the estate may recover the decedent’s future lost wages but not beyond what would have been used to support their family members.

What Drives Wrongful Death Settlement Payouts

The process for calculating damages due to wrongful death is similar to medical malpractice cases. In general, the primary consideration is the deceased person’s life circumstances, his or her work, any family he or she supported, and the nature of his or her injuries and damages. These damages can also include final medical expenses and the cost of their funeral.

Legal Help for Wrongful Death and Medical Malpractice Claims

The legal system is complex to navigate, and if you are considering filing a lawsuit for either medical malpractice or wrongful death, you should consult with a medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible.

Who Is Eligible to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Every state limits who can file a lawsuit for wrongful death due to medical malpractice. Some states require the plaintiff to be the executor of the decedent’s will. Others allow surviving spouses, parents, or children to sue. Other states extend the eligibility to siblings and other relatives.

How to File a Wrongful Death Claim

To file a claim for wrongful death, you first have to determine whether a wrongful death occurred. Each state has slightly different definitions of the term, so an attorney can help you figure out how your state defines wrongful death Your attorney will also let you know whether you’re eligible to file the claim, as mentioned above.

You will also need to file your lawsuit as soon as possible after the death because states have strict statutes of limitations on how long you have to file. Although there are a few exceptions where the wrongful nature of the death wasn’t discovered until later, consulting with an attorney should be one of the first things you do.

Medical Malpractice causing Wrongful Death: How to Find Help

The law offices of Cohen, Placitella & Roth are proud to represent every one of our clients with tenacity, experience, and fresh strategic perspectives. Our goal is to seek justice for you and the people you hold most dear. If you or a loved one has suffered personal injury or wrongful death due to medical malpractice, you should seek legal help at once. Our team of lawyers and medical professionals is suited to handle anything from medical negligence to birth injury.

If you have a question, or would like to consult with us, please don’t hesitate to contact us at (888) 572-7388 or fill out our online contact form.