Wrongful Death Lawyer in St. Louis, MO



Understanding Wrongful Death Claims

Wrongful Death
Losing a loved one due to the negligence of another's actions can be emotionally devastating. When the death happens suddenly and without warning, the pain can be unbearable.

Losing a loved one due to the negligence of another's actions can be emotionally devastating. When the death happens suddenly and without warning, the pain can be unbearable. It is important that the party or parties responsible for their death be held accountable for their actions. What recourse do you have? Missouri law says you are entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the person(s) who caused the death of your loved one.

“Wrongful death” means that a person or a corporation, either through negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct, caused someone’s death. If your loved one has just been killed through the negligence or intentional conduct of a third party, your lives may be devastated. You may be grieving for a long time. That mother, or father, or child, may have been the most important person in your whole life. Many people say that when a loved one dies, it feels like part of the survivor dies as well. I have a wife and six children, and I cannot bear to think of how distraught and lost I would be if one of them died. Perhaps that person who was killed was the sole breadwinner of the family. Unless there is life insurance or other assets, the death of that person may make the family destitute. If that death was caused by the negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct of a third party, you need to consider retaining an experienced wrongful death lawyer.

Have you lost a loved one to a wrongful death?

The loss of a beloved relative in a wrongful death accident is an extraordinarily traumatic experience, made all the more so by the sudden and unnecessary nature of the loss. The purpose of the lawsuit is to provide compensation to the parties who depended on the deceased person for support, both emotional and financial. The wrongful death may be the result of a reckless, careless or negligent act. Such accidents are always rooted in negligence on the part of another, and they can come in a variety of forms such as:

  • Automobile accidents
  • Defective products
  • Drunk driving accidents
  • Drowning accidents
  • Slip and falls
  • Construction site accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Dangerous prescribed pharmaceutical medication
  • Nursing home negligence
  • Accidents in the workplace
  • Hazardous chemical exposure
  • Farm accidents
  • Violent acts

The party or parties responsible for accidents that result in wrongful death should be held liable for the damages they have caused to the victim's family, as well as for their pain and suffering. If your family has suffered the loss of a loved one due to the negligence of another, do not hesitate to retain the powerful representation of a lawyer from our proven injury firm.

Common Questions

Wrongful death cases can be extremely complex; it is important that you hire a qualified personal injury attorney who has experience with wrongful death cases. The Medler Law Firm, LLC has access to medical experts and accident reconstruction experts who can thoroughly investigate your case. We are compassionate, caring and capable of answering all of your questions about your specific circumstances. Some of the questions victims' families often have include:

  • Who is entitled to sue?
  • Can I recover monies for pain and suffering?
  • How are the damages to be divided among family members?
  • Can I sue for punitive damages?
  • Are adoptive parents and children covered?

Who is Entitled to Sue?

Wrongful death statutes passed by the legislatures of the states govern this question, and each state statute is different. In some states, like Illinois and Arkansas, only the “Estate” of the deceased person is entitled to bring a lawsuit. In other states, like Missouri, the wrongful death statute specifies which persons are entitled to sue. Let’s examine each one separately.

States in which an Estate is Required

If your loved one dies in a state that requires the Estate to bring the lawsuit, that means that the family will often need to hire a probate lawyer to open an estate (this can cost a few thousand dollars), or, in some cases, your personal injury lawyer can do it for you and roll the costs of opening the estate into the case, to be reimbursed by you later when you recover. A person is appointed by the Court to act as the “personal representative” of the estate. If the person who died left a will, that will determine who is the personal representative. If there is no will, then typically a relative will apply to the court to act as the personal representative. The probate court then will order “letters of administration” and appoint the person to become the personal representative. That person will handle all the debts of the estate, and ultimately make the distributions to the proper parties before the estate is closed.

OK, so let’s assume that a man dies without a wife, and he leaves two surviving daughters, Joan and Alice. He does not have a will. Let’s assume that Alice applies to be the personal representative and the Court appoints Alice as the Personal Representative of the Estate. Does that mean that if there is a successful wrongful death lawsuit, Alice will get all the money? No. Think of the Personal Representative as a kind of custodian of the Estate. This Personal Representative hires the wrongful death lawyer and coordinates with him/her. At the end of the case, the defendant pays a settlement. The Personal Representative, kind of like a custodian or trustee, takes that money and puts it into the Estate. Now, the money that went into the Estate, after paying off the debts of any creditor who filed a claim with the probate court, is distributed by the Personal Representative to the appropriate parties. We had a case involving a young girl who died because of a doctor’s malpractice. The mother and father spoke very little English, but the father had a sister-in-law who was fluent in both Spanish and English. The family elected to have the sister-in-law act as Personal Representative. The case was settled, the money was paid into the Estate, and the PR distributed the money collected to the little girl’s mother, father, and two brothers. The PR got nothing from the settlement (although the family may choose to pay her a small fee for her work in acting as PR).

Now who are those “appropriate parties” to get the money that is collected? Again, every wrongful death statute is different. Some state statutes provide that if there is a will, the money gets distributed as per the will. Some state statutes provide that if there is no will, the money gets distributed according to the default rules in the state’s “intestate succession” rules. Some state statutes provide certain classes of people (spouse, parents, children, siblings) who take in a particular order. Here is another thing to remember. In some state statutes, even if there are more than one person entitled to recover in the same class, the Court may not split the recovery equally. Rather, court makes an “allocation decision” at an “allocation hearing.” Let’s assume, for example, that a teenager is killed due to the negligence of a trucking company. The teenager had no siblings, no children of his own, but has a surviving mother and father. The mother and father are divorced. The mother had sole custody of the teenager when he passed, was responsible for raising and supporting the child, took the child to all of his soccer practices, helped him with his homework, comforted him when he was down, and so on. The father essentially abandoned the child, moved to another state, and had very little contact with the child, and welched on his child support obligations. In a case like that, the Court might determine that even though the mother and father were in the same “class” of people entitled to recover under the wrongful death statute, the father was only entitled to 1% of the recovery, or possibly even nothing, and the mother was entitled to everything else. So the allocation hearing determines percentages based upon how close and involved the person was with the decedent’s life.

States in which no Estate Required

Some states, like Missouri, dispense with all this “Estate” business, and just specify which classes of people are entitled to recover in wrongful death. In those states, there is no need to open a probate estate. For example, in Missouri, “Class 1” wrongful death beneficiaries are the spouse, parents, and children, as well as lineal descendants of deceased children. So let’s assume that a 65-year-old woman dies with a surviving 65-year-old husband, a 90-year-old mother, and a 30-year-old daughter who has twin 7-year-old girls. Assume that the woman who died also had a 28-year-old son who had previously died, but that son had a 2-year-old son. Who is entitled to recovery under the Missouri wrongful death statute? The spouse is a Class 1 beneficiary. The 90-year-old mother is a Class 1 beneficiary. The 30-year-old daughter is a Class 1 beneficiary, but her twin 7-year-old girls are not (because the 30-year-old mom is living). The 2-year-old child of the deceased 28-year-old son is also a Class 1 beneficiary. So that makes a total of four Class 1 beneficiaries.

Let’s assume that there are no people in Class 1. When the person dies, there is no living spouse, living parents, living children, or living children of children. Then you turn to Class 2, which consists of brothers and sisters, and if they are not living, then nephews and nieces. So if a person died with no spouse, no children, no parents, but had a surviving brother, and a niece who was the daughter of a deceased sister, there would be two Class 2 beneficiaries.

Remember that the people in Class 1 take “to the exclusion of” people in a lower class. So if a person who dies leaves a surviving daughter and a surviving brother, the brother gets nothing.

What happens if there are no Class 1 or Class 2 beneficiaries? In that case, in Missouri, the Court appoints a “plaintiff ad litem” to act as the personal representative. When the suit is over, the plaintiff ad litem distributes the funds to the descendants of the decedent per the Missouri default laws of succession.

Adoptive Parents and Children; Illegitimate Children

What about adopted children and adoptive parents? They are treated the same as children and parents who did not have an adoption. The same thing is true for illegitimate children. They are treated the same as “legitimate” children.

Allocation Hearings

Do the people in the same class split the proceeds equally? Sometimes, but many times not. When the case is settled, the court conducts an “allocation hearing.” In that hearing, the court arrives at percentages that are fair, and include such things as how close the person in the class was to the deceased person. So if a child dies with divorced parents, and one parent had lots of contact with the child, and the other parent did not, the child with closer ties will get a greater percentage. Often times, the survivors will agree on their own split. We had one case in which the parents, who were elderly, agreed to take 5% each, giving the wife 50%, and each of the two children 20%. If the survivors in the same class agree on a split, the Court will often honor that arrangement. Generally, in these cases, there is an inclination to give the spouse the most.

What if there are two people in the class who each want to bring a wrongful death case with their own lawyer?

Anyone in Class 1 (or if there is no one in Class 1, then Class 2), can bring a wrongful death lawsuit. Let’s assume that a child dies, leaving no siblings, but a surviving mother and father who are divorced and hate each other. The mother gets an attorney and the father gets an attorney. If the mother files a lawsuit, the father can then also file a lawsuit. But at the end of the day, there can only be one wrongful death action and recovery for the death of any one person. So in that case, the mother’s case and the father’s case would be consolidated, and two lawyers would be bringing the case. This is not a favorable scenario, because it is better to have one "captain of the ship" and to have everyone in the same class “on the same page.” For example, in one case we had where we represented the father, and another law firm had the mother, when the mother got on the stand, she was so angry that the father could possibly get any part of the recovery that she bad-mouthed the father on the stand. Once attacked, the father bad-mouthed the mother on the stand. Guess what happened? The jury gave them nothing. It is much more preferable if everyone in the same class can work out their differences.

Here is another problem. In these cases of Class 1 beneficiaries with opposing interests, attorneys can often be faced with questions of a conflict of interest. Let’s assume that a lawyer initially gets hired by the mother of a deceased child. Then the father of the child calls and wants to hire the same attorney as well. However, the mother and father hate each other and each one feels that if there is a recovery, he/she should receive a greater percentage than their divorced spouse. The attorney has to recognize that at the end of the case, when it comes time for an allocation, the mother and father will be fighting with each other to get a greater percentage. So this lawyer would not be able to represent both of them. In some cases, where the conflict is great enough, an attorney might have to withdraw from representing both of them. What is the answer to this? The best answer is for the divorced spouses to work out an allocation among them, with no involvement from the attorney at all. We had one case in which a teenage girl was killed by a negligent truck driver. The mother had sole custody of the child and had the most significant contact with the teenager and took care of her. The father had much more minimal involvement with her life and paid very little of his child support obligation. We were hired by the mother, but then the father wanted to retain us, too. We told the father that we could not ethically represent him. However, the mother was concerned that if we did not make the father happy in some way, he might bad-mouth her in the case, reducing the value of any settlement. So after we explained the allocation rules to the mother, she called the birth father on her own, with no involvement from the attorneys, and she and the father agreed to a 70 (mom)/ 30 (dad) split. She got the father to sign a written agreement memorializing their understanding. With that issue resolved, we were then free to represent the father as well. The mom and dad, although they disliked each other, then cooperated on the case. We resolved the case very successfully for both of them.

What if the mother files the lawsuit, and the father does nothing? Is the father entitled to a share at the end?

Yes, unless the father has such minimal involvement with the child’s life that the court believes the father is entitled to nothing. The mother and father are both in the same Class. So even though the mom may have filed the case and “did all the work” to get a settlement, the father can come in at the end at the allocation hearing and ask for a percentage. Now keep in mind that the fact that the mother did all the work is one factor the court can consider in awarding a percentage. But your name does not need to be on the lawsuit for you to recover, as long as you are in the correct class of wrongful death beneficiaries.

What Types of Damages are Recoverable in a Wrongful Death?

Again, every state’s statute is different.

Pain and Suffering of the Decedent

One of the first questions is whether the wrongful death claimants can recover for the pain and suffering that the decedent suffered between the time of injury and death. So let’s assume that a truck negligently hits a car and causes a post-collision fire. The occupant is badly burned and suffers in agony in the burn ward for four months until he dies. In many states, like Missouri, the wrongful death claimants can recover for that pain and suffering for four months. In other states, such pain and suffering is not recoverable.

Economic Damages

Let’s assume that a husband dies who was the sole breadwinner for his wife and children. Let’s assume that the husband was 40 years old and making $65,000 per year. The spouse can recover for the lost economic damages (the money the husband would have earned had he lived). Your attorney will hire an economist or accountant expert, who will use life expectancy tables to determine what the typical life expectancy of this man was. Then he will take that number of years, and multiply it by the wage of the person at the time of death. That’s the simple answer, but it is actually a little more complicated than that. The expert normally has to consider the fact that had the husband lived, he would have gotten raises over time, which would have made the salary higher. He also had benefits, like health insurance, through work, which have a value which must be quantified. Maybe there is a lost pension. On the other hand, any money he made would have been subject to income taxes, so those have to be taken into account. There is also the fact that any jury award is given to the survivors immediately in one big lump sum check today, and not over twenty or thirty years, which would be how the money would have come in had the husband lived. A dollar today can be invested over the course of time, so if we do not account for the time value of money, the survivors could be paid too much. Also, if the husband had lived, he would have spent some of that money on his own consumption. To be realistic, an expert might have to deduct some amount for that. An expert will take into account lots of variables like these and arrive at a lost wages number which is fair.

What if the person who died was two years old? Are lost wages recoverable?

In some states, lost wages of a minor child are only recoverable to the extent that the child was supporting the parents with money from his earnings. So a 14-year-old child who was working and giving his money to his parents would qualify, for example. You can see that this amount will not be very great, because usually minors do not make that much money. So in these states, if the child is not Justin Bieber, this will be a very small amount. In other states, however, one can recover for the lifetime earnings of the child, even if the child was not supporting the parents. Missouri works like that. You can see that such an amount could be very large. But how do you figure out what the salary would have been over the child’s lifetime if they are two years old? The Missouri statute says this:

If the deceased is under the age of eighteen, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that the annual pecuniary losses suffered by reason of the death shall be calculated based on the annual income of the deceased's parents, provided that if the deceased has only one parent earning income, then the calculation shall be based on such income, but if the deceased had two parents earning income, then the calculation shall be based on the average of the two incomes.

So, you basically assume that the wages of the minor would have been the same as those of his working parents.

Medical Expenses

In the burn example above, the decedent would have four months’ worth of hospital bills, which could be significant. In many states, like Missouri, those expenses are recoverable as economic damages.

Lost Wages of a Housewife or Househusband

What if the person who died is a housewife or house husband taking care of small children? Obviously, such persons work very hard every day, and if they die, their work will be an item of damage for their survivors. Missouri’s statute provides:

If the deceased was not employed full time and was at least fifty percent responsible for the care of one or more minors or disabled persons, or persons over sixty-five years of age, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that the value of the care provided, regardless of the number of persons cared for, is equal to one hundred and ten percent of the state average weekly wage, as computed under section 287.250.

The current “state average weekly wage” for death in Missouri is $1,366.91, so 1.1 x $1,366.91 = $1,503.60. That equates to an annual lost wage of about $18,000.

Loss of Companionship, Support, Training, Guidance, Etc.

Much of the damages suffered when someone dies is intangible-- the mother who was always there to comfort the child when she was sad; the father who made great pancakes and taught the kids how to throw a baseball; the spouse who gave unconditional love. Those types of damages are called “non-economic damages” and are also recoverable in just about every state. A jury can award just about any amount they want for this type of damage.

One of the problems is that “tort reform advocates” have tried to convince state legislatures to limit or cap these type of damages. In medical malpractice cases in Missouri, for example, these type of damages are limited to $700,000. And President Trump’s 2017 proposed budget, if passed in its current form, would limit these type of medical malpractice damages to $250,000. The Medler Law Firm strongly opposes these type of unfair and unconstitutional restrictions on the jury’s function to properly award damages in a civil case. However, until such laws are overturned, they may apply to limit part of your recovery, depending on the facts of your case. Currently, however, there are no non-economic damage caps on cases not involving medical malpractice.

Grief and Bereavement

Some state wrongful death statutes allow a beneficiary to recover for grief and bereavement. Missouri’s statute does not allow recovery for these damages.

Funeral Expenses

These damages are also recoverable in nearly every state, including Missouri.

Value of the Life of the Decedent

In a few states, like Arkansas, a beneficiary can recovery for the value of the life of the decedent. These type of damages are not recoverable in Missouri.

Aggravating Circumstances or Punitive Damages

In some states, like Missouri, these type of damages are recoverable, if the Decedent’s actions were outrageous or were in conscious disregard of the safety of others. Take the O.J. Simpson case, for example. Even though a criminal jury acquitted O.J. of a crime, a civil jury later held that Simpson, more likely than not, murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. The jury awarded the families $25 Million in punitive damages. These type of damages are reserved for those egregious cases of wrongful death, although the conduct by the defendant does not need to be intentional (as in the Simpson case) for a jury to award punitive damages.

What is the Statute of Limitations on a Wrongful Death Case?

Again, every state is different. In Missouri, the rule is three years from the date of death. Note that if medical malpractice (which in Missouri has a two-year statute of limitations) causes death, you go by the three-year rule, and not the two-year rule.

What if the Defendant Commits Negligence, and the Negligence Injures a Person, but the Person then Dies of a Completely Unrelated Cause?

Let’s assume that a doctor commits medical malpractice. As a result of that malpractice, the patient loses a limb. However, six months later, the victim is involved in a hit-and-run accident and is killed. The case against the doctor is not a wrongful death case, but a personal injury medical malpractice case. In cases where a person is injured by negligence, but dies of an unrelated cause, the lawsuit is called a “survival” case. In essence, the person is bringing a personal injury lawsuit after death. One needs to watch out, because a survival case is treated differently than a wrongful death case. For one thing, the statute of limitations is different. For another difference, in Missouri, the survival case must be brought by the personal representative of the Estate. So an estate needs to be opened in probate court. These are important distinctions, because if the wrong procedure is followed, the case can be thrown out. It also creates problems when it is a little unclear whether the death was, or was not, caused by the negligence. Imagine a medical malpractice case in which a doctor negligently cuts a patient’s bowels during a routine operation, requiring wound care, revision surgeries, and so on. But this patient also has pre-existing conditions like heart trouble, COPD, etc. The patient dies two months later. Did the medical malpractice put the patient over the edge so that she died, or is the death the result of her pre-existing condition? An expert will be required to sort this out. And time is of the essence, because if this medical malpractice case is one for survival, and not wrongful death, the lawyer will be faced with a two-year, not three-year statute of limitations, and will need to get an estate opened.

There are a myriad of ways in which your loved one can be killed through the negligence of other people—motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, product defects, workplace accidents—those are just a few.

If your loved one was killed through the negligence of a corporation or some other person, then it is imperative that you contact an experienced St. Louis wrongful death attorney immediately. Our law firm’s partners have nearly thirty years’ experience each in handling wrongful death claims. Call us for free today at 314-727-8777.

With over 50 years of combined experience, we have the skill and seasoned knowledge your family's case deserves, and we can help you fight for justice.

Enlist Powerful Advocacy

A Johns Hopkins Medical Study from 2016 found that there are over 250,000 deaths caused by medical errors each year making medical malpractice the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. There are 40,000 fatal motor vehicle accidents every year. Almost 20,000 yearly fatalities result from falls, and 5,800 occurred in workplace accidents. Our team at The Medler Law Firm, LLC is well-versed in these tragic cases, and we are available to provide you with the aggressive and tireless representation needed to fight to hold the negligent parties responsible for their harmful actions.

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