Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

cemetery1.jpgIn Florida, civil (in contrast to criminal) claims for wrongful death are made under the provisions of the Wrongful Death Act, laid out in Sections 768.16-768.26 of Florida’s statutes. The Act prescribes the types of damages available for wrongful death and the circumstances by which they may be recovered.

Only survivors and the decedent’s estate may recover damages under the Act.

Wrongful death claims are brought through the decedent’s estate. Following death, an estate is opened in Probate Court and is used thereafter as the vehicle for pursuing claims. A Personal Representative, typically a family member of the decedent or some other trusted individual, is appointed by the court to probate the estate.

Probating an estate encompasses many responsibilities, one of the most important of which is serving the interests of the decedent’s survivors under the Wrongful Death Act.

Survivors (children, spouse, and parents) are not allowed to bring separate lawsuits, or legal actions, against the at-fault party. Rather, their individual claims are brought in one action by the PR through the estate. The PR selects the lawyer to prosecute the wrongful death claims.

PRs have a fiduciary duty to each survivor. See, Section 733.602 Florida Statutes and In re Estate of Wiggins, 729 So.2d 523 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999). Among other things, the fiduciary duty requires PRs to apportion the proceeds for survivors and the estate in a reasonable and equitable manner. Continental National Bank v. Brill, 636 So.2d 782 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1994); University Medical Center v. Ziegler, 625 So.2d 125 (Fla. 5th DCA 1993); Guadalupe v. Peterson, 779 So.2d 494 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2000); and Thompson v. Godson, 825 So.2d 941 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002) review denied 835 So.2d 266 (Fla. 2002).
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cemetery1.jpgWho can be compensated and the types of damages that are available when a person dies through the wrongful act or negligence in Florida of any person or company is prescribed by statute in the “Florida Wrongful Death Act,” sections 768.16 through 768.26. The chart below is a breakdown of section 768.21.

Wrongful Death claims are brought on behalf of statutory “survivors” by the Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate. The Personal Representative, typically a family member and often a survivor, is appointed by the court after due notice is given to all interested parties. The Personal Representative hires the attorney who will bring a claim to recover damages for the decedent’s estate and survivors. Florida wrongful death attorneys handle these cases on a contingent basis, meaning that attorney’s fees are paid only after a successful recovery has been made in the case. The standard within the legal industry is for the fee to be a percentage of the overall recovery, rather than being based on an hourly rate.

Who may recover under the Act and to what extent varies according to the circumstances of each case and can be confusing. There have been many legal challenges to the Act, yet it has survived all challenges essentially intact. At this point in time, it will take action from the Florida Legislature to change the Act.

The goal of this blog is to make the Act understandable. The chart shows the types of damages that can be recovered and by whom. Many of the variations and exceptions are counterintuitive and unfair. For example, a surviving spouse will preclude the recovery of any damages by the decedent’s parents. In addition, the Act gives special consideration to medical providers, in some instances putting them beyond the reach of the law for causing death by medical negligence/malpractice.

Spouse Dies – Surviving Spouse but no Surviving Children
Spouse’s Damages:

  • Loss of Decendent’s Companionship and Protection
  • Mental Pain and Suffering from date of injury
  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/ interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • Medical and Funeral Expenses due to decedent’s injury/death if paid by survivor

Spouse Dies with Surviving Children and Surviving Spouse
Spouse’s Damages:

  • Loss of Decendent’s Companionship and Protection
  • Mental Pain and Suffering from date of injury
  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/ interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • Medical and Funeral Expenses due to decedent’s injury/death if paid by survivor

Children’s Damages:

  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/ interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • Minor children only (under the age of 25 – Section 768.18(2) Florida Statutes), or all children if there is no surviving spouse, may also recover loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance and mental pain and suffering from date of the injury

Parent Dies with Surving Children but no Surviving Spouse
Surviving Children:

  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • All children may recover loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance and mental pain and suffering from date of the injury

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law books.jpgLittle known by most lay people is that every plaintiff involved in litigation, even those who appear to walk away with favorable judgments, may be subject to court sanctions in the form of paying the defendant’s attorneys fees.

The sanction can be imposed under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.442, known as the Proposal for Settlement rule. Under the PFS rule, if the plaintiff refuses a pretrial offer for 25% more than the case is worth, the plaintiff may have to pay the defendant’s attorneys fees incurred from the date of the offer through the trial of the case. (For purposes of this topic, the worth of a case is the amount of the final judgment. A final judgment is not the same thing as a verdict.)

The courts appear to have found an exception to the PFS rule for survivors in cases brought under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act.

In Kadlecik v. Haim, 79 S03d 892 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012), the court gave the following explanation for the exception:

Under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, an estate’s personal representative brings all claims on behalf of both the estate and the decedent’s survivors. §§ 768.16-.26, Fla. Stat. (2010). The personal representative has the exclusive authority to conduct litigation and settle all claims. Thompson v. Hodson, 825 So. 2d 941 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002); Pearson v. DeLamerens, 656 So. 2d 217 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995). The survivors are not parties to the wrongful death litigation, even when the claims are brought for their benefit. Accordingly, it is error to award attorneys’ fees against the survivors because the personal representative is the only person with authority to settle the claim and the individual survivors cannot be fairly said to have rejected an offer of settlement. See Beseau v. Bhalani, 904 So. 2d 641, 642 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005) (holding that entry of judgment against survivor was erroneous as, despite being individually named on complaint, she was not proper party to proceeding); Thompson, 825 So. 2d at 952 (holding that attorneys’ fees cannot be assessed against survivors in wrongful death action based on offer of judgment since personal representative alone has authority to settle and survivors cannot be said to have rejected offer of settlement).

Is the exception foolproof? At least one Florida lawyer, the renowned Dale Swope, of Swope, Rodante, P.A., in Tampa, has doubts. (His article on the subject is contained in the March/April 2012 #559 edition of the Journal, a magazine published for members of the Florida Justice Association.)
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cemetery1.jpgRead together, Florida Statute Section 95.11(4)(d) and Section 95.031(1) provide that an action for wrongful death, under Section 768.21 (known as Florida’s Wrongful Death Act), must be commenced within two (2) years of when the last element constituting the cause of action occurs. This is a strict standard that does not take into account the “delayed discovery” doctrine.

The “delayed discovery” doctrine tolls the statute of limitations until the plaintiff either knows or should know that the last element of the cause of action occurred. The only type of wrongful death action to which the doctrine applies and thus tolls the statute of limitations is one arising from medical negligence. See Section 95.11(4)(b). No other type of wrongful death claim is so tolled.

For example, in Raie v. Cheminova, Inc., 336 F. 3d 1278 – Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit 2003, a wrongful death claim based on products liability was barred even though the Personal Representative did not learn of the cause of death until four years after the decedent’s death.

Although not pertinent to wrongful death claims, the other types of actions to which the doctrine applies are:

  • Claims of fraud.
  • Products liability claims that result in injury but not death.
  • Professional malpractice (95.11(4)(a))
  • Intentional torts based on abuse (95.11(7)).

See Davis v. Monahan, 832 So.2d 708 (Fla., 2002).
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cemetery1.jpgWho can be compensated and the types of damages that are available when a person dies through the wrongful act or negligence in Florida of any person or company is prescribed by statute in the “Florida Wrongful Death Act,” sections 768.16 through 768.26. The chart below is a breakdown of section 768.21.

Wrongful Death claims are brought on behalf of statutory “survivors” by the Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate. The Personal Representative, typically a family member and often a survivor, is appointed by the court after due notice is given to all interested parties. The Personal Representative hires the attorney who will bring a claim to recover damages for the decedent’s estate and survivors. Florida wrongful death attorneys handle these cases on a contingent basis, meaning that attorney’s fees are paid only after a successful recovery has been made in the case. The standard within the legal industry is for the fee to be a percentage of the overall recovery, rather than being based on an hourly rate.

Who may recover under the Act and to what extent varies according to the circumstances of each case and can be confusing. There have been many legal challenges to the Act, yet it has survived all challenges essentially intact. At this point in time, it will take action from the Florida Legislature to change the Act.

The goal of this blog is to make the Act understandable. The chart shows the types of damages that can be recovered and by whom. Many of the variations and exceptions are counterintuitive and unfair. For example, a surviving spouse will preclude the recovery of any damages by the decedent’s parents. In addition, the Act gives special consideration to medical providers, in some instances putting them beyond the reach of the law for causing death by medical negligence/malpractice.

Spouse Dies – Surviving Spouse but no Surviving Children
Spouse’s Damages:

  • Loss of Decendent’s Companionship and Protection
  • Mental Pain and Suffering from date of injury
  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/ interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • Medical and Funeral Expenses due to decedent’s injury/death if paid by survivor

Spouse Dies with Surviving Children and Surviving Spouse
Spouse’s Damages:

  • Loss of Decendent’s Companionship and Protection
  • Mental Pain and Suffering from date of injury
  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/ interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • Medical and Funeral Expenses due to decedent’s injury/death if paid by survivor

Children’s Damages:

  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/ interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • Minor children only (under the age of 25 – Section 768.18(2) Florida Statutes), or all children if there is no surviving spouse, may also recover loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance and mental pain and suffering from date of the injury

Parent Dies with Surving Children but no Surviving Spouse
Surviving Children:

  • Loss of Support and Services from date of injury to date of death (w/interest)
  • Future Loss of Support and Services from date of death (at present value)
  • All children may recover loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance and mental pain and suffering from date of the injury

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In the wake of The Miami Herald’s excellent series, Neglected to Death (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3), on the dire health and safety issues associated with Florida’s nursing home/assisted living facility industry, this is a good time to discuss some legal propositions closely related to the subject.

The Herald series focused on the problems and the state’s role, through AHCA and law enforcement, to control the situation. It paid little attention to the important role the civil justice system can and does play in regulating the system.

Civil law, as opposed to criminal law, is the branch of law dealing with disputes between individuals and/or organizations, in which compensation may be awarded to the victim. For instance, if a car crash victim claims damages against the driver for loss or injury sustained in an accident, this will be a civil law case.

In Florida, nursing home residents and their families harmed by negligence can bring claims through the civil justice system against those responsible for causing the harm. Such claims are brought under the parameters established by Chapter 400 of the Florida Statutes.

Even though victims may have the right to sue under Florida law, there is no guarantee of recovering compensation from the wrongdoers. This is because many of the facilities do not carry adequate insurance to cover losses or operate through a legal tangle of corporations and fictitious names designed to frustrate collection efforts.

Estate of Canavan v. National Healthcare Corp., 889 So. 2d 825 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004), provides some assistance to those trying to collect for nursing home negligence. The case, involving a lawsuit brought by the estate of a deceased nursing home resident, allows victims’ attorneys to hold a company’s directors or statutory managers personally liable for policy-level decisions affecting the operation of a long-term care facility.
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dollars.jpgIn Florida, a claim for wrongful death is brought by a court-appointed personal representative on behalf of the decedent’s estate and survivors. Florida’s Wrongful Death Act (FWDA) (Florida Statute Sections 768.16-768.26) outlines the specific damages recoverable by the estate and the survivors (e.g., surviving spouse and children).

Many wrongful death victims receive medical care for the injuries that have caused them to die. Frequently, Medicare pays those medical expenses.

In 1980, Congress enacted the Medicare Secondary Payer Act. The Act authorized the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to seek reimbursement for medical expenses incurred on behalf of wrongful death victims. One of the policies employed was to seek reimbursements from the property of wrongful death survivors who have no obligation or other connection to Medicare. This was always wrong, but it took a federal court to make the secretary understand.

Cases brought under the FWDA are resolved in favor of the estate and survivors in one of three ways: (1) pre-lawsult settlement; (2) settlement during suit; or (3) jury verdict rendered to a final judgment. When a case is settled, the personal representative is responsible for allocating the settlement proceeds between the estate and the survivors. In many instances, the estate is left with only a tiny portion of the overall recovery.

Until September 29, 2010, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services gave little regard to the allocations made under alternatives (1) and (2). The only allocations respected by the secretary were those made by a jury, alternative (3). Backed by the federal government, the secretary would muscle reimbursements from allocations made to survivors under options (1) and (2), even when the allocations are approved by a probate court judge. This was unacceptable to the personal representative and survivors in Bradley v. Sebelius, 621 F.3d 1330, 2010 WL 3769132 (11th Cir. 2010), who challenged the secretary’s practice of ignoring allocations made by personal representatives and approved by probate courts.
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What are the rights of expectant parents for the death of a fetus from an incident like a slip and fall or medical malpractice? Surprisingly, because a fetus is not considered a person under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, Tanner v. Hartog, 696 So.2d 705 (Fla. 1997), neither parent may bring a claim for wrongful death or for loss of companionship. U.S. v. Dempsey, 635 So.2d 961 (Fla. 1994).

Because the law treats the death of a fetus as a physical injury to the mother, the mother may bring a personal injury action against the at-fault party. The action can include a claim for emotional injuries.

The viability of a father’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is far less certain. The answer depends, in part, on the mysterious and unpredictable “impact rule.”

In Florida, whether a person may recover for emotional injuries is governed by the impact rule. Florida’s impact rule provides as follows: “[b]efore a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another, the emotional distress injuries must flow from personal injuries the plaintiff sustained in an impact. The rule actually requires some impact on the plaintiff, or, in certain situations, the manifestation of severe emotional distress such as physical illness.” Fla. Dep’t of Corr. v. Abril, 969 So.2d 201, 206 (Fla. 2007).”

The rule was developed to limit “fictitious or speculative claims.” Willis v. Gami Golden Glades, LLC, 967 So.2d 846, 850.
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In Greenfield v. Daniels (November 24, 2010), the Florida Supreme Court decided that paternity of a child could be determined in the course of a wrongful death proceeding under Chapter 768, Fla. Statutes rather than in a paternity proceeding under Ch. 742, Fla. Stat. The Court’s decision disapproved the conflicting decision of a lower appellate court in Achumba v. Neustein, 793 So.2d 1013 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001).

In Greenfield, the bioligical father of a minor child committed suicide. A wrongful death action was brought by the estate of the decedent against a psychiartist (and a hospital) for allegedly negligently discharging him. A claim was made for the minor as a “survivor” under the statute. However, the doctor challenged the child’s status as a “survivor,” claiming that the child’s status could not be established after the purported father’s death.

The legal question at issue was whether or not paternity could be established in the wrongful death proceeding.
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Yesterday’s blog was about the primary legal differences between Florida’s workers’ compensation and personal injury systems with regard to accident-related bodily injuries. Today’s blog will address the differences, which are significant, between Florida’s workers’ compensation system and it’s Wrongful Death Act for the loss of life due to accidents.

For the most part, the laws in Florida regarding compensation for death caused by accidents are prescribed by statute. Workers’ compensation addresses the issue through Florida Statute 440.16, while Florida’s Wrongful Death Act (768.16-768.26), covers it in the context of third-party liability. (CAVEAT: There are exceptions to Florida’s workers’ compensation immunity laws that could make the employer liable for damages under the Wrongful Death Act. A lawyer should always be consulted to consider the issue.) The differences between the two bodies of law are significant.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCES:

  • Negligence. As a legal concept, negligence is generally defined as conduct that is culpable because it falls short of what a reasonable person would do to protect another individual from foreseeable risks of harm. It is often difficult to prove negligence. While negligence does not have to be established in a workers’ compensation case, it is a necessary and essential element of every wrongful death case other than those involving strict liability.
  • Damages. The monetary compensation for death in workers’ compensation may not exceed $150,000, up from $100,000 from just a couple of years ago. With the exception of death caused by medical malpractice (see this blog), the wrongful death statute does not contain a similar arbitrary cap. The wrongful death statute allows for what is known as non-economic damages (e.g., loss of companionship; mental pain and suffering). Florida’s workers’ compensation system does not. The primary reasoning for the difference has to do with the issue of negligence. The Florida Legislature has decided that not being allowed to recover non-economic damages is a fair price to pay for not having to prove negligence in workers’ compensation cases. In my view, $150,000 hardly makes for a fair trade-off. Workers’ compensation allows for the recovery of $7,500 in funeral expenses.
  • Who May Recover Damages. Both bodies of law contain statutory schemes for who may recover damages for death resulting from an accident. Each scheme is convoluted. The monetary benefits through workers’ compensation are paid on a periodic basis, while the compensation under the Wrongful Death Act are paid in a lump sum. I have prepared a flow chart for who may recover under the Wrongful Death Act – follow this link.
  • Statute of Limitations. Two (2) years for each. There are exceptions and variations on this black-letter statement, so a knowledgeable lawyer should be consulted before any conclusions are reached.
  • Trial by Jury. Not available in workers’ compensation cases. Available upon request in wrongful death cases.
  • Attorney Representation. Available in both types of cases.

The issues addressed in this blog are complex and complicated, not nearly as simple as they may appear here. It is for this reason that we encourage and highly recommend that these issues be addressed with a qualified attorney.
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