The term “wrongful death” refers to a civil lawsuit in which a plaintiff seeks monetary damages from the party whose alleged negligence, recklessness, or intentional wrongdoing caused the death of a loved one. The purpose of wrongful death lawsuits is to compensate family members of the deceased who have (themselves) suffered economic losses – such as medical bills and burial costs – as a result of the decedent’s death.

Types of Wrongful Death Suits

Wrongful death lawsuits can arise from a variety of situations, including the following:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Work-related accidents
  • Defective product accidents
  • Premises liability accidents
  • Aviation accidents
  • Alleged criminal activity

Who Can Sue

If your loved one dies due to someone’s negligence or wrongdoing, the laws of some states allow you to sue the responsible person yourself for wrongful death if you’re an immediate family member of the deceased, such as their spouse, parent, or child. In other states, the only person who can bring a wrongful death action is the person appointed as the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. In these states, the personal representative sues on behalf of the “real parties in interest,” i.e., the decedent’s family members, and, if they win the lawsuit, distributes the proceeds to said family members.

Civil Versus Criminal Action

Note that a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action, meaning that monetary damages are the only thing a court can award you if you win your case. It cannot send the defendant to prison or otherwise punish them. Only a criminal court can do that. Also note, however, that you can file a wrongful death action against the alleged perpetrator even if a criminal court acquits them of having committed a crime.

Perhaps the most memorable examples of this reality were the 1990s cases involving OJ Simpson, a former Heisman Trophy winner, star NFL running back, and movie and TV actor. When authorities found his estranged wife and her friend dead in front of her home in Bel Aire, California, the state prosecuted OJ for murder. After a lengthy nationally televised trial in which famed California defense attorney Johnnie Cochran led OJ’s “dream team” of defense lawyers, the jury acquitted OJ of murder. The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman subsequently sued OJ for wrongful death, and the jury awarded them $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.


You may find that winning a civil case gives you a sense of justice served and helps you to find some closure regarding the loss of your loved one. As an experienced personal injury lawyer can confirm, it is a good idea to explore your legal options before committing to a plan of either action or inaction. You may not know whether pursuing a civil case against those responsible for your loved one’s death is the best option for your family at this time until you’ve had a discussion with an attorney and become increasingly informed about your rights and options under the law.