When Does a Death Qualify for Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death claims arise in a wide variety of ways, but not every death that occurs in Tennessee is necessarily classified as a “wrongful death.” The term wrongful death actually has a specific meaning under state law and applies to very particular circumstances. When these claims do arise, they can help family members and the estates of the deceased recover compensation. Here, we want to explain what actually qualifies as a wrongful death claim in Tennessee.

Defining Wrongful Death in Tennessee

According to state law, wrongful death lawsuits could arise when an individual (or a fetus) dies as a result of “injuries received from another” or “by the wrongful act, omission, or killing by another” (Tenn. Code § 20-5-106 (2021). These claims can be filed if the deceased individual would have been able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault party had they survived.

Essentially, the state of Tennessee treats wrongful death cases as special types of personal injury claims where the injured individual is no longer able to bring a claim on their own. Instead, the right to file these claims passes to specific family members or the personal representative of the deceased individual’s estate.

Wrongful death claims will typically hinge on whether or not the at-fault party was “negligent,” and negligence can be established by examining four particular elements:

Duty. The first step is showing that the deceased was owed a duty of care by the defendant (the person or entity alleged to have caused the incident). The exact duty of care will vary depending on the type of claim that has arisen. For example, property owners have a duty of care that is owed to any person who has a right to be on their premises, and this includes regular inspection and maintenance of the property and warning guests about any potential hazards. Drivers in Tennessee owe a duty of care to others around them, and this duty extends to abiding by all traffic laws.

Breach. An attorney will need to show that the defendant breached the duty of care they owed the deceased. Depending on the situation at hand, a breach of duty will look very different. For car accident cases, a breach of duty can include operating while impaired or distracted. For premises liability claims, a breach of duty can include failing to maintain a premises or willfully ignoring known hazards.

Causation. If there was indeed a breach of duty, it must be shown that the breach is what led to the injuries or illness that caused the fatality. Sometimes, there are other mitigating factors that could have played a role in the incident, so there needs to be a clear link between the actions of the at-fault party and the death.

Damages. The final element is establishing that the plaintiff (the family members or the estate) sustained some sort of monetary loss as a result of the incident. This can include medical bills, funeral and burial expenses, lost income the deceased would have earned, physical and mental suffering experienced by the deceased, and more.

We strongly recommend individuals contact an attorney if they have lost a loved one due to the negligent actions of another party. These claims become difficult very quickly, but a Tennessee wrongful death attorney can step in and act as an advocate on your behalf throughout the entire process.