Wrongful Death

A wrongful death claim is a suit that arises from the death of an individual that was caused by the conduct of another. A wrongful death suit is different from other types of personal injury claims because the actual victim (the "decedent") is not bringing suit, rather it is the family members or the decedent’s estate. As such, a wrongful death claim is brought to recover damages for the injuries that the surviving family and/or estate have suffered due to the death of the victim. The damages recovered do not include damages that are personal to the decedent, since the decedent is not allowed to recover for pain and suffering, mental distress, or any other form of compensatory damages unique to him or her. The purpose of a wrongful death suit is to provide relief to family members who have been injured emotionally and financially as a result of the family member’s death.

To file a wrongful death suit in Oklahoma, you must show that:

  • The death of a person was caused by a wrongful act, neglect or default
  • The act, neglect or default would have entitled the injured person to file an action to recover damages had the death not occurred (12 Okl. St. § 1053)
  • There are surviving beneficiaries, children, or dependants of the victim (12 Okl. St. § 1053)
  • Monetary damages have resulted from the decedent’s death

Oklahoma law makes a distinction between persons who can file a wrongful death suit and persons who are beneficiaries. Only certain individuals can file wrongful death claims, and those that are allowed to sue do so on behalf of others. In Oklahoma, a personal representative of the deceased person may file a suit on behalf of the surviving spouse, children or parents. A personal representative is a person appointed by the estate of the decedent to represent the beneficiaries. If no personal representative has been appointed, the widow/widower or next of kin may bring the wrongful death action. 12 Okl. St. § 1054

Damages for Wrongful Death

Damages in wrongful death cases is intended to compensate for losses resulting from the death of a family member. Some losses are measurable - a widow in a wrongful death suit, for example, could seek to recover the financial support that she would have received had her spouse lived. Other damages are more general in nature. Types of recoverable damages include:

  • Direct Expenses- medical bills and funeral cost.
  • Loss of Benefits- what the person could have received in pension/retirement benefits had they lived.
  • Loss of Future Earnings- what the person who died would have earned in salary if he or she had lived.
  • Loss of Companionship- what the person who died would have emotionally provided to a relationship, and the mental pain and suffering resulting from the decedent’s death.
  • Punitive Damages- what amount the defendant should be punished for his or her action resulting in the victim’s death.

Oklahoma law provides that where the recovery is to be distributed according to a person's pecuniary loss or loss of companionship, the judge shall determine the proper division. 12 Okl. St. § 1053.

Amount of Damages

Calculating damages is a complex process involving multiple factors. Some factors include (1) how dependent the plaintiff was on the decedent; (2) the nature of the relationship with the decedent; (3) the anticipated lifespan of the decedent, (4) the anticipated earnings and other benefits of the decedent, and (5) the presence of any comparitive fault. Often, determining the appropriate amount of damages for a particular element can be difficult. For example, when addressing damages for loss of companionship, a jury must attempt to put a price tag on the emotional loss you suffered from the decedent death.

An important element in wrongful death damage calculations is in estimating expected or future income losses. Future losses are the amount of earnings and benefits the decedent would have earned if he or she lived. Therefore, it is common to take the victim’s earnings at the time of his or her death and calculate the remaining years until retirement (or expected death) to determine future loss of earnings.

Example: Suppose a spouse, 25 years of age, was earning $20,000 a year at the time of his death. Since he was not expected to retire or die for another 40 years, his yearly earnings at the time of his death would be multiplied by the number of years he was expected to work before retirement or expected death ($20,000 X 40 years). In this instance, his future loss is $800,000.

The example above is a simple explanation of how future loss calculations are made. Most of the time, however, the calculations can get very complicated. In most cases, a life expectancy table is used to estimate the number of years the decedent would have lived had they survived. So instead of just using retirement age as a standard for life expectancy, a life expectancy table may consider other factors that may increase or decrease the number of years the decedent would have been expected to live.

Damages for Wrongful Death

Damages in wrongful death cases is intended to compensate for losses resulting from the death of a family member. Some losses are measurable - a widow in a wrongful death suit, for example, could seek to recover the financial support that she would have received had her spouse lived. Other damages are more general in nature. Types of recoverable damages include:

  • Direct Expenses- medical bills and funeral cost.
  • Loss of Benefits- what the person could have received in pension/retirement benefits had they lived.
  • Loss of Future Earnings- what the person who died would have earned in salary if he or she had lived.
  • Loss of Companionship- what the person who died would have emotionally provided to a relationship, and the mental pain and suffering resulting from the decedent’s death.
  • Punitive Damages- what amount the defendant should be punished for his or her action resulting in the victim’s death.

Oklahoma law provides that where the recovery is to be distributed according to a person's pecuniary loss or loss of companionship, the judge shall determine the proper division. 12 Okl. St. § 1053.

Amount of Damages

Calculating damages is a complex process involving multiple factors. Some factors include (1) how dependent the plaintiff was on the decedent; (2) the nature of the relationship with the decedent; (3) the anticipated lifespan of the decedent, (4) the anticipated earnings and other benefits of the decedent, and (5) the presence of any comparitive fault. Often, determining the appropriate amount of damages for a particular element can be difficult. For example, when addressing damages for loss of companionship, a jury must attempt to put a price tag on the emotional loss you suffered from the decedent death.

An important element in wrongful death damage calculations is in estimating expected or future income losses. Future losses are the amount of earnings and benefits the decedent would have earned if he or she lived. Therefore, it is common to take the victim’s earnings at the time of his or her death and calculate the remaining years until retirement (or expected death) to determine future loss of earnings.

Example: Suppose a spouse, 25 years of age, was earning $20,000 a year at the time of his death. Since he was not expected to retire or die for another 40 years, his yearly earnings at the time of his death would be multiplied by the number of years he was expected to work before retirement or expected death ($20,000 X 40 years). In this instance, his future loss is $800,000.

The example above is a simple explanation of how future loss calculations are made. Most of the time, however, the calculations can get very complicated. In most cases, a life expectancy table is used to estimate the number of years the decedent would have lived had they survived. So instead of just using retirement age as a standard for life expectancy, a life expectancy table may consider other factors that may increase or decrease the number of years the decedent would have been expected to live.

Present Value

When using a life expectancy table to calculate future losses, courts will often reduce the total future loss to a present dollar value. Because most wrongful death damage awards are paid in a lump sum, a beneficiary essentially receives the total amount of earnings and benefits the decedent would have made over the course of his/her life, reduced to a single amount which is discounted to present dollars.

Example: A spouse works in a department store earning $20,000 a year. Assuming he works there for the next 40 years, he will make a total of $800,000 by the 40th year. The spouse suddenly dies as a result of a wrongful death. The surviving spouse would recover a lump sum payment designed to compensate her for the $800,000 loss, discounted to present dollars.

How is present value calculated?

In order to calculate present value, the future loss is first calculated using the life expectancy table. Once the future loss amount is calculated, it is then adjusted discounted using a mathematical table. The mathematical table estimates today’s value of one dollar in the future based on the number of years the decedent was expected to live and an annual interest rate. After that is determined, the estimate from the table is multiplied by the decedent’s yearly salary. The purpose for using present value is that a successful plaintiff will receive a sum that if invested at a reasonable interest rate, should equal the value of the future loss amount and cover expenses that may eventually arise if it is conservatively invested.

Distribution of Damages

In wrongful death suits, more than one family member may be a beneficiary to an award amount. So how are damages distributed? Under Oklahoma law, the amount recovered is distributed in proportion to damages sustained by each particular individual. 12 Okl. St. § 1053 If the party is the decedent’s estate, the total amount does not become an asset of the estate. 12 Okl. St. § 1053.