If the death of a person results from the action of another, regardless of whether the action was intentional, then either the estate or the surviving family members may file a wrongful death claim. This blog will set forth the definition of wrongful death in Arizona and the standards of the claim when it is brought.
Arizona defines wrongful death as one resulting from the “wrongful act, neglect or default” of another. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 12-612 (2021). The party against whom a claim can be filed can be a person or an entity. The wrongful acts defined in the statute include those that are based on negligence, medical malpractice or the intentional act committed in a crime.
The liability in a wrongful death case are expressed in terms of the financial compensation owed by the defendant to the estate or to the surviving family members.
Although Arizona includes an intentional, criminal act as a basis for a wrongful death claim, this claim is not the same as a homicide. A homicide is a criminal case, and these cases are brought against the defendant by the State of Arizona. Financial compensation is not awarded to the plaintiff. In criminal cases, the punishment against a defendant is penal, meaning prison, jail or probation. The case is filed in criminal court with the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden placed upon the State to prove the case.
A wrongful death case is civil. Civil cases are brought by private citizens or properly-organized entities in Arizona. There is no penal sentencing in a civil suit. In these cases, the punishment is punitive, meaning the financial award is the punishment.
A wrongful death claim can be brought against the person charged with a criminal act leading to a death. The civil suit is over and above the criminal charge. The findings in a wrongful death claim are not dependent upon the outcome of a criminal case.
The hurdle to prove responsibility in a civil case is lower than proving guilt in a criminal case. The “preponderance of evidence” standard does not apply the reasonable doubt burden. In a civil case, the standard for proof must be greater than 50% that the defendant caused the death.
In Arizona, if the decedent had been able to file a personal injury claim, then the surviving family members or the estate have an eligible claim for wrongful death. In other words, the State of Arizona extends the right to the survivors to file a wrongful death claim against the party responsible for the death. The estate or the family members are allowed to do what the decedent cannot do for itself.
A claim for a wrongful death must be filed within two years of the person’s death. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 12-542 (2021). If this time limit has passed, then there is a good chance that the claim cannot be pursued.
There are technicalities in a wrongful death claim when the criminal act of intent becomes a layer in the civil case.