Florida Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Recently, a South Florida man was awarded $157 million in a wrongful death case. The complaint was lodged against two of the nation’s largest tobacco companies—R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris. Beginning in 2007, Edward Caprio pursued a personal injury award against the company. In his complaint, he argued that the tobacco companies hid the dangers of smoking, furthering his addiction. Caprio, a longtime smoker, died from respiratory disease.
His husband, as his personal representative and survivor, continued the pursuit of compensation as a wrongful death case. In addition to the $9.2 million compensatory award, the jury awarded $74.1 million in punitive damages from each company. The award was the first from a tobacco company to a surviving gay spouse.
It was also the largest verdict against a tobacco company since 2014. In 2014, a jury in Pensacola awarded a $23.6 billion verdict against R.J. Reynolds. The case asserted that the tobacco company was responsible for causing the death of another Florida man in 1996. However, that verdict was later thrown out in 2019 after a retrial that cleared the tobacco company of fault.
When the wrongful actions of a person or entity cause another’s death, Florida law allows family members to file a wrongful death suit. The wrongful statute intends to provide family members with compensation for the financial and emotional costs of their loss. To speak to a wrongful death lawyer about your case schedule a free consultation with Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today. Read on for more information about how settlements and verdicts in these cases are paid.
What Is Wrongful Death?
Florida’s Wrongful Death Act describes “wrongful” death as a death caused by a “wrongful act, negligence, breach of contract, or default.” The circumstances must show that “wrongful” conduct caused another’s death. Additionally, the conduct must be of the type that could be the basis for a personal injury action. In other words, had the decedent survived, the decedent would be entitled to bring a personal injury action. Circumstances meeting these requirements allow family members to bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of the deceased.
Wrongful death lawsuits are civil lawsuits that are filed by personal representatives on behalf of surviving family members. The wrongful death statute requires that a named personal representative initiate the lawsuit. The personal representative may be named as the executor or administrator of the estate in the deceased’s will. If the will does not name an executor or administrator, a representative will be appointed by the court. If the case is successful and compensation is awarded, the damages will be disbursed to eligible beneficiaries. Family members who can file a wrongful death suit and also eligible to receive damages include:
- The deceased’s spouse.
- The deceased’s minor children.
- The adult children of the deceased if there is no spouse.
- The deceased’s children who were born out of wedlock, if the deceased is their mother. If the deceased is their father, children he had formally claimed or financially supported may also be eligible to recover.
- Minor children born after the death of a parent are entitled to recover the same damages owed to minor children.
- The parents of the deceased, if the deceased is under the age of 25.
- Other blood relatives and adoptive siblings who were dependent on the deceased wholly or partially for support.
- The estate of the deceased.
Types of cases that may give rise to a wrongful death action include:
- Motor vehicle accidents. When a driver’s negligent action causes an accident resulting in a death, a wrongful death claim may be appropriate. For example, accidents caused by inattentive driving, speeding, or driving under the influence.
- Products liability. Manufacturers or distributors of products, medications, or food that caused the death of a consumer may form the basis of a claim. The death must result from using the products as directed or in accordance with the labeling instructions. On the other hand, you may be able to bring a claim if the packaging instructions were insufficient to avoid consumer harm.
- Premises liability. Property owners are required to ensure that their property is safe from hazards that can result in injury or death. Owners of private residences, business owners, and oweners of property that is owned or maintained by a governmental agency may be liable. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed on behalf of the widow of a trucker who was crushed. The fatal accident occurred while the trucker was delivering goods to a Florida warehouse. A pile of steel beams weighing 70,000 pounds fell on the man causing his death. The lawsuit not only names the company who owned the warehouse, but also the regional manager of the company. The complaint asserts that the manager had a duty to ensure that the facility was safe for workers and visitors.
- Medical malpractice. Healthcare providers who make an error resulting in the death of a patient may be held accountable in a medical wrongful death suit. For example, physicians may be liable for misdiagnosis, surgical errors, birth injuries, inadequate follow-up care, or medication errors.
- Intentional acts. In addition to criminal charges, intentional acts such as assault or murder may form the basis for a wrongful death claim. Broward County recently settled a wrongful death claim after a man was shot to death by deputies responding to a domestic violence call. The man was described as intoxicated, but calm, at the time the deputies arrived at the home. Despite his non-threatening demeanor, he was shot six times less than a minute after deputies began questioning him. Prosecutors determined that the deputies’ use of lethal force was justified because the man was armed with a knife. Despite a lack of criminal prosecution, Broward County settled the claim to “avoid the uncertainty of prolonged litigation.”
Eligible individuals may be limited from collecting compensation by an absence of insurance resources. Generally, wrongful death claims are filed against the insurance policy of the responsible party. Nonetheless, wrongful death claims can still be brought against uninsured defendants. Collecting any settlement or award will be more difficult if the defendant cannot pay.
What Damages Can Be Pursued in a Wrongful Death Case?
The amount of damages one can claim in a wrongful death case depends on the individual’s relationship with the deceased.
- The surviving spouse may recover damages such as loss of financial support and services from the date of the injury or death. In addition, damages may include loss of the decedent’s companionship or pain and suffering.
- Minor children (under age 25) are entitled to the same losses as the surviving spouse. In addition, they may claim damages for loss of parental companionship and guidance from the date of the decedent’s death.
- Adult children may recover the same damages as spouses and minor children if there is no spouse or minor children to recover.
- Parents of a deceased child under the age of 25 are eligible to recover damages for mental pain and suffering.
- The estate of the deceased may recover lost earnings or loss of future net accumulations. Additionally, the estate may be compensated for expenses related to the funeral and burial of the deceased.
- In cases involving particularly reckless or wanton conduct on the part of the defendant, punitive damages may also be awarded. Punitive damages are intended to be a form of punishment. An award of punitive damages is hoped to deter an individual or entity from continuing to display such egregious behavior.
How Are the Funds Allocated?
Florida law requires a fair and equal distribution of the compensation received from a wrongful death settlement or jury award. Generally, if adult survivors can agree on how the settlement or award should be disbursed, the court will honor the agreement. However, there are special considerations given to the following situations:
- Minor children must be allocated an adequate amount to meet their needs until they reach an age of majority. Often, a guardian ad litem will be appointed to administer the disbursement of funds until the child becomes an adult.
- Dependent adults who were wholly dependent on the deceased for financial support have the same priority as minor children. For example, a disabled adult or a parent with dementia may need compensation to pay for the support they lost.
- Liens against the deceased’s estate will be deducted from the portion of the settlement or award received by the estate. Liens do not attach to compensation received by individual survivors.
- If a settlement is agreed upon before a wrongful death lawsuit is filed, the court must approve the settlement. Especially if the settlement includes compensation collected on behalf of minor children.
- When the spouse is also the decedent’s personal representative, an administrator ad litem may be appointed by the court. The administrator serves to ensure fair and equitable distribution of the funds if there are other survivors eligible to recover.
- Attorney fees are typically paid by the personal representative and deducted from the awards for survivors and the estate. The amount of fees paid is proportionate to the individual allocation received.
What Is the “Free Kill Exemption”?
When a Sarasota man died following a surgery intended to repair an aortic aneurysm, the man’s mother and girlfriend were surprised to learn that they were barred from recovery in a medical malpractice wrongful death claim due to an exemption to the state’s wrongful death act. The “free kill” exemption prohibits medical malpractice claims when the decedent is over the age of 25, unmarried, and without minor children.
In these circumstances, the law only provides compensation for the spouse of the decedent or their minor children (under the age of 25). Additionally, the parents of minor children who die from medical negligence are prohibited from claiming damages for pain and suffering. The individuals most greatly impacted by the law include:
- The parents of young adults over the age of 25 but who had not yet married or had children;
- Elderly widows or widowers who die due to medical negligence and their adult children who are ineligible to recover;
- Military veterans who are not married and do not have children;
- Childless adults who are in a long term, committed relationship but have not legally married; and
- The adult children of a parent who is not married.
The exemption to the law was created more than 30 years ago. Florida lawmakers attempted to make the state more attractive to doctors by protecting them against large malpractice payouts. Because the exemption removes the threat of financial exposure in medical malpractice, it was nicknamed the “free kill” exemption.
Despite repeated attempts to repeal these provisions of the state’s wrongful death act, the exemption remains in effect. A wrongful death attorney can advise you as to whether your case may be affected by the Free Kill Exemption.
What About Taxes on my Wrongful Death Settlement?
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not tax money received from settlements or verdicts that were paid due to physical injury or illness. The IRS does not require compensation to be claimed as income, so the monies are not taxed. The exemption from taxation applies to compensatory damages. Compensatory damages include lost wages, funds for the decedent’s medical treatment, and non-economic awards for family members. On the other hand, punitive damages, awarded as punishment, in wrongful death cases may be subject to tax. A wrongful death attorney can assist you in determining if any part of your settlement or award is taxable.
Money distributed to the estate for damages will be subject to taxation. Lost net-accumulations are subject to estate taxes. Additionally, any taxes that the decedent would have paid on those earnings in life will be applied.
If you’ve lost a loved one due to a wrongful act or negligence, you may be eligible to receive compensation as described above. An experienced wrongful death attorney can provide further guidance to help you understand this process.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765