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Rick Shapiro
Rick Shapiro
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What Constitutes Grounds for a Wrongful Death Civil Lawsuit?

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A recent decision in favor of the plaintiff in a Virginia civil lawsuit illustrates one of the more unique grounds for bringing, and succeeding with, a wrongful death claim. Jurors essentially determined that the defendant had been negligent in failing to act to prevent the death of his wife from the combined effects of intoxication and exposure.

The details of the case, which concluded in Westmoreland County, VA, on May 1, 2014, show a troubled marriage and severely strained relations between the parents and the one daughter who filed the suit. Facts all parties agreed to were that that husband and wife argued, the wife had used alcohol and the sleep medication Ambien shortly before losing her life, and that 48 hours elapsed between when the man last saw the woman and when her body was found frozen and covered in snow about 80 yards from the home they shared in Hague, VA.

According to the Free Lance-Star, the plaintiff accused her step-father of “wrongful, negligent, intentional and/or malicious acts” in neither notifying police that her mother had gone missing nor going out to find her. The father testified in court that he believed his wife had been attempting suicide, could not do so quickly and left the home simply to get away from him. He further said he did not search for her himself because he did not want to restart their fight and attract negative attention from neighbors and law enforcement officials.

The defense received support from the medical examiner who had ruled the woman’s death a suicide. Partly based on that determination, police never filed murder or manslaughter charges.

Jury members spent a little less than two hours in deliberation before  awarding the plaintiff a total of $8 million to be shared with her half-sister. Speaking with the newspaper, the jury foreman said, “If there had been a quicker action done, there could have been a different outcome. . . . We all felt good about [the decision].”

Under law, negligence that results in death can take many forms. Our Virginia personal injury law firm has not yet handled a case decided on the basis of a defendant’s failure to act to save a life. However, failure to act, or an egregious omission, often does serve as a basis for liability in other types of negligence cases.

For instance, my wrongful death attorney colleagues and I have applied negligence standards to cases in which a commercial truck driver failed to slow for a disabled vehicle, a doctors who bungled an anesthetic procedure and a railroad company that did not protect workers from carcinogens.

It is unclear whether the award will stand. The judge has the authority to alter the verdict, and the defense attorney has promised to file an appeal. If the jury’s decision holds, however, individuals who can show that a loved one could have lived if a person who should have taken lifesaving action did not do so would have strong grounds for pursuing compensation.

EJL