Wrongful Death Action

Wrongful Death Action
Wrongful Death Action
Quick Summary of Wrongful Death Action

A wrongful death action is a lawsuit that can be filed against an individual or entity responsible for causing the death of another person. Typically, this type of lawsuit is brought by the surviving family members of the deceased. Examples of situations that may lead to a wrongful death action include a car accident caused by a driver who was texting while driving, a medical malpractice case where a doctor’s negligence led to a patient’s death, and a workplace accident caused by an employer’s failure to provide proper safety equipment or training. In each of these examples, someone’s death was caused by the actions or negligence of another person or entity, and the surviving family members may be able to seek compensation for their loss through a wrongful death action.

What is the dictionary definition of Wrongful Death Action?
Dictionary Definition of Wrongful Death Action

A wrongful death action occurs when an individual is found to be at fault for causing another person’s death. This can occur in cases such as car accidents or medical malpractice where someone’s actions directly lead to the death of another. Previously, only immediate family members were able to file a wrongful death claim, but the law has since been amended to allow others to also bring forth a claim.

Full Definition Of Wrongful Death Action

A wrongful death action is a legal procedure through which the heirs or dependents of a deceased person seek compensation for the loss and harm brought about by the death as a result of another’s wrongful act, neglect, or default. This legal remedy is designed to provide financial support to those who were dependent on the deceased and to hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions. This overview will cover the foundational principles of wrongful death actions, relevant legislation, procedural aspects, and notable case law in the context of British law.

Historical Background

Although statutory reforms have significantly influenced the concept of wrongful death actions, it has its roots in common law. Historically, under common law, no claim could be brought for the death of a person; the cause of action was said to die with the person. This was encapsulated in the Latin maxim “actio personalis moritur cum persona” (a personal action dies with the person). The inadequacy of this doctrine led to the introduction of statutory reforms.

The Fatal Accidents Act 1846, commonly known as Lord Campbell’s Act, was a pivotal piece of legislation that allowed the relatives of a deceased person to claim compensation. This Act laid the groundwork for modern wrongful death claims in the UK, ensuring that the dependents of a deceased individual could seek redress for their loss.

Current Legislative Framework

The Fatal Accidents Act 1976, which has since undergone amendments by the Administration of Justice Act 1982 and the Fatal Accidents Act 1992, serves as the main piece of legislation governing wrongful death claims in the UK. These statutes provide the structure within which wrongful death claims are pursued.

Fatal Accidents Act 1976

The Fatal Accidents Act 1976 outlines the conditions under which a wrongful death claim can be brought. Key provisions include:

  • Eligibility to Sue: The Act specifies the categories of individuals who are entitled to bring a claim. These include the spouse or civil partner, former spouse or civil partner, cohabiting partners (if they had lived with the deceased for at least two years), children, parents, and other relatives who were financially dependent on the deceased.
  • Heads of Damages: The Act allows for claims under various heads of damages, including loss of financial dependency, loss of services, funeral expenses, and bereavement damages.
  • Bereavement Damages: A statutory sum, currently set at £15,120, is awarded to the spouse or civil partner of the deceased, or to the parents of a minor (under 18) who has died.

Limitation Act 1980

The Limitation Act 1980 imposes time limits within which a wrongful death claim must be brought. Generally, the claim must be filed within three years of the date of death or the date when the claimant became aware that the death was attributable to the defendant’s conduct. This period can be extended under certain circumstances, particularly if the claimant was a minor or lacked mental capacity at the time.

Procedural Aspects

Pursuing a wrongful death action involves several procedural steps, from initial investigation to trial or settlement. Key procedural aspects include:

Pre-Action Protocol

Before formally filing a wrongful death claim, the claimant must comply with the Pre-Action Protocol for Personal Injury Claims. This involves notifying the defendant of the intended claim, providing sufficient details about the claim, and engaging in a process aimed at exploring settlement options. The protocol aims to encourage early settlement and avoid unnecessary litigation.

Issuing the Claim

If a settlement cannot be reached, the claimant must file a claim in the appropriate court. Claims for wrongful death are typically brought in the High Court or County Court, depending on the value and complexity of the case. The claim form, along with supporting documents, must be filed and served on the defendant.

Disclosure and Evidence

Both parties are required to disclose relevant documents to each other. This includes medical records, financial documents, and any other evidence pertinent to the claim. Witness statements, expert reports, and other forms of evidence are also exchanged during this phase.

Trial and Judgement

If the case proceeds to trial, both parties present their evidence and arguments before a judge. The judge then determines liability and assesses the appropriate damages. In some cases, a jury may be involved, particularly if the case involves allegations of gross negligence or other serious issues.

Heads of Damages

Damages in wrongful death actions are awarded under several heads, aimed at compensating the claimants for their financial and non-financial losses.

Loss of Financial Dependency

This head of damages compensates the dependents for the financial support they have lost due to the deceased’s death. It includes loss of income, benefits, and other financial contributions the deceased would have made to the family. Calculating these damages involves assessing the deceased’s earning capacity, age, life expectancy, and the extent of financial dependency.

Loss of Services

The dependents may also claim for the loss of services provided by the deceased, such as childcare, household chores, and other contributions to the family’s well-being. The value of these services is often quantified based on the cost of hiring someone to perform these tasks.

Funeral Expenses

The dependents’ reasonable funeral expenses are recoverable as part of the damages. This includes costs related to the burial or cremation, funeral service, and other associated expenses.

Bereavement Damages

As mentioned earlier, bereavement damages are a statutory sum awarded to specific relatives of the deceased. This is a fixed amount and does not vary based on the individual circumstances of the case.

Notable Case Law

Several landmark cases have shaped the interpretation and application of wrongful death laws in the UK.

Davies v. Taylor [1974] AC 207

In this case, the House of Lords considered the scope of dependency under the Fatal Accidents Act. The court held that the dependency must be assessed based on the financial support that the deceased would have provided had they lived, considering factors such as the deceased’s future earning capacity and the claimant’s dependence on that support.

Hicks v. Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992] 2 All ER 65

This case arose from the Hillsborough disaster and involved claims for damages for the pain and suffering experienced by the victims before their deaths. The House of Lords ruled that damages for pre-death pain and suffering could be claimed in addition to wrongful death damages, provided there was evidence of conscious pain and suffering experienced by the deceased.

Cox v. Ergo Versicherung AG [2014] UKSC 22

The Supreme Court addressed the issue of applicable law in cross-border wrongful death claims. The court held that the law governing the quantification of damages in a wrongful death claim should be determined based on the law of the country where the harm occurred, rather than the country where the action was brought. This case highlights the complexities that can arise in international wrongful death claims.

Comparative Perspectives

While the focus of this overview is on British law, it is useful to briefly consider how wrongful death actions are handled in other jurisdictions, particularly in common law countries.

United States

State law governs wrongful death lawsuits in the United States, resulting in significant variations between states. Generally, similar principles apply, with claims being brought by close relatives or dependents of the deceased. The types of damages available are often broader, including punitive damages in some states, which aim to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in the future.


Similar to UK law, state and territory legislation governs wrongful death cases in Australia. The categories of eligible claimants and the heads of damages are similar, with a focus on compensating dependents for their financial and non-financial losses. One notable difference is that Australian law often provides for broader categories of claimants, including de facto partners and stepchildren.


Provincial laws, such as the Family Law Act in Ontario and the Fatal Accidents Act in Alberta, govern wrongful death actions in Canada. Canadian law typically allows claims for loss of dependency, loss of guidance, care and companionship, and reasonable funeral expenses. The approach to quantifying damages is broadly similar to that in the UK, with a focus on the financial and emotional impact on the dependents.


Wrongful death actions are a crucial legal remedy that offers compensation to the dependents of a deceased person whose death was the result of another’s wrongful act or neglect. The Fatal Accidents Act of 1976, which lays out the framework for who can make a claim, the types of damages that are available, and the procedural requirements, primarily governs these claims in the UK.

The law in this area aims to balance the need for financial support for dependents with the principles of fairness and accountability. While the statutory framework provides a clear structure, the interpretation and application of the law continue to evolve through judicial decisions. As societal norms and legal principles develop, so too will the landscape of wrongful death actions, ensuring that this important area of law remains responsive to the needs of those it seeks to protect.

Wrongful Death Action FAQ'S

A wrongful death action is a legal claim brought by the surviving family members or beneficiaries of a person who has died due to the negligence or intentional act of another party. It seeks to hold the responsible party accountable for their actions and recover damages for the losses suffered by the deceased person’s loved ones.

In most jurisdictions, the immediate family members, such as the spouse, children, or parents of the deceased person, have the right to file a wrongful death action. In some cases, other dependents or individuals who were financially dependent on the deceased person may also be eligible to file a claim.

The damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death action vary depending on the jurisdiction, but they typically include compensation for funeral and burial expenses, medical bills, lost income and future earnings, loss of companionship, and emotional distress suffered by the surviving family members.

Yes, there is a time limit, known as the statute of limitations, for filing a wrongful death action. The time limit varies by jurisdiction, but it is generally within two to three years from the date of the deceased person’s death. It is crucial to consult with an attorney promptly to ensure compliance with the applicable deadline.

In some jurisdictions, the concept of comparative negligence applies, which means that the damages awarded in a wrongful death action may be reduced based on the percentage of fault assigned to the deceased person. However, in other jurisdictions, if the deceased person is found to be even partially at fault, it may completely bar the surviving family members from recovering any damages.

Yes, it is possible to file a wrongful death action against a government entity if the death was caused by the negligence or wrongful act of a government employee or agency. However, there may be specific procedures and limitations that apply when suing a government entity, so it is important to consult with an attorney experienced in such cases.

In some jurisdictions, a wrongful death action can be filed for the death of an unborn child if certain criteria are met, such as the child being viable at the time of the incident. However, the laws regarding wrongful death of unborn children vary, so it is essential to consult with an attorney to understand the specific requirements in your jurisdiction.

Yes, a criminal case and a wrongful death action can be pursued simultaneously. A criminal case is brought by the state to punish the wrongdoer, while a wrongful death action is a civil claim seeking compensation for the losses suffered by the surviving family members. The outcome of the criminal case may have an impact on the wrongful death action, but they are separate legal proceedings.

Yes, it is common for wrongful death actions to be resolved through a settlement. A settlement is an agreement reached between the parties involved, usually with the assistance of their attorneys, to resolve the claim without going to trial. The terms of the settlement, including the amount of compensation, are negotiated and agreed upon by the parties.

While it is not legally required to have an attorney to file a wrongful death action, it is highly recommended. Wrongful death cases can be complex, involving various legal and procedural requirements. An experienced attorney can provide guidance, handle the legal aspects of the case, and advocate for your rights to ensure you receive fair compensation for your loss.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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