Estate laws vary widely from state to state. In New York, the State’s body of estate law is meant to deal with the legal consequences of a person’s death, most notably the outstanding financial matters left in their wake. As you might expect, New York’s Estates, Powers and Trusts Law is deeply concerned with the writing and administration of wills, along with how the Courts should handle cases in which a person did not leave a will. Beyond these issues, New York’s estate law creates a robust “cause of action,” recognizing an estate’s right to file a civil lawsuit for damages when someone’s death was caused by negligence, misconduct or intentional harm.
As established in New York’s Estate’s, Powers and Trusts Law, Article 5, Part 4:
“the personal representative, duly appointed in this state or any other jurisdiction, of a decedent who is survived by distributees may maintain an action to recover damages for a wrongful act, neglect or default which caused the decedent’s death against a person who would have been liable to the decedent by reason of such wrongful conduct if death had not ensued.”
As we can see, New York law allows a late individual’s “personal representative” to pursue legal action, but only under certain circumstances.
Who Can File A Claim For Damages?
New York law is explicit: only an estate’s “personal representative” (you may be more familiar with the term “executor”) is allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. While many other states allow family members, including a surviving spouse or adult children, to file wrongful death lawsuits, New York gives this right solely to the estate’s executor. In many cases, of course, the estate’s executor, or “personal representative,” will be a surviving spouse or adult child, but that isn’t a requirement.
In writing their Last Will and Testament, most people select a personal representative prior to death, designating a loved one or close confidant to handle their remaining financial concerns. That’s not always the case, though. When people die without having left a will, or having left an improperly-drafted will, one of New York State’s Surrogate’s Courts can select an individual to serve as the deceased’s personal representative. In any event, the estate’s personal representative holds the exclusive right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Manhattan.
How Do Death Lawsuits Work?
Wrongful death lawsuits, however, need not be restricted to claims pursued by the decedent’s estate. In fact, it may be helpful to think of a wrongful death lawsuit more as two distinct legal claims for damages, which are simply brought together in a single lawsuit to save time and money. The vast majority of civil lawsuits involving someone’s death make two separate claims on a defendant:
- Conscious Pain & Suffering – intended to compensate the decedent’s estate for physical pain and emotional suffering experienced by the decedent prior to death
- Wrongful Death – intended to compensate the late individual’s “distributees” for financial losses incurred as a result of their loved one’s death
While both of these claims will be filed by the estate’s personal representative, damages secured from the wrongful death claim can be awarded to the decedent’s “distributees,” surviving family members and financial dependents who are defined by law according to an order of priority. In most cases, the Court will look to a surviving spouse and children as the decedent’s primary distributees. Parents and grandparents can be considered distributees if there is no surviving spouse or child. The proceeds from a successful “conscious pain and suffering” claim, on the other hand, will be awarded to the individual’s estate, and then distributed according to their Last Will and Testament.
What Is Negligence?
New York State law is quite clear that wrongful death lawsuits are only appropriate in cases where the decedant, if they had not died, could have filed a personal injury lawsuit. The law itself suggests that only deaths caused by a “wrongful act, neglect or default” serve as sufficient grounds for a civil lawsuit. As a result, most wrongful death claims will find their foundation in a legal theory that permeates the domain of personal injury law: negligence.
The doctrine of negligence recognizes a simple ethical principle: some people, along with corporations, owe others a special duty of care. Take physicians as one example. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals have a legal responsibility to provide their patients with an adequate level of care. Their actions are held to a standard. When the actions of a medical professional fall below the relevant standard, they have acted negligently and can be held accountable in a court of law.
Negligence isn’t just limited to cases of medical malpractice. It also serves as the foundation of most car accident lawsuits, along with slip and fall claims and some product liability lawsuits.
Compensation After A Loved One Passes Away
We’ve already seen how the majority of wrongful death lawsuits actually include two distinct claims for compensation, one meant to compensate the estate for the decedent’s conscious pain and suffering and another to compensate the decedent’s closest family members. In New York, the scope of this second “wrongful death” claim is highly-restricted.
Families in Manhattan will only be able to recover damages for strictly financial losses. In some other states, survivors are also allowed to claim losses to compensate their own emotional trauma and suffering. New York does not. As a result, the majority of wrongful death claims filed in New York State will demand compensation for economic damages, like:
- medical expenses incurred during the decedent’s final illness or injury
- funeral and burial expenses
- lost wages and lost Social Security payments
- loss of financial support (in the event that the decedent left behind financial dependents)
Again, the damages claimed on behalf of the late individual’s surviving family members come in addition to any claim made in relation to the pain and suffering experienced by the decedent him or herself due to the defendant’s alleged negligence.
How Long Does My Family Have To File Suit?
Like every state, New York has instituted a “statute of limitation” to govern civil lawsuits involving a loved one’s death. This law serves as a time limit, dictating how long injured or wronged individuals have to file their claims in court. As you could expect, New York’s statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits is particularly complex, since most complaints will comprise two distinct claims. In fact, the majority of wrongful death lawsuits will actually come under two distinct statutes of limitation, one limiting conscious pain and suffering claims and another limiting wrongful death claims.
Conscious pain and suffering claims, filed on behalf of the estate, must be brought within:
- 3 years of the date of actual negligent conduct or wrongdoing, or
- 1 year of the date of death,
whichever date comes later. Wrongful death claims, on the other hand, must be filed within 2 years of the decedent’s death, the New York State Unified Court System reports. Courts in Manhattan adhere to these statutes of limitation rigorously. File your claim after the statute has run out and your lawsuit will almost certainly be dismissed. However, there are three relevant exceptions, which may or may not apply in your situation:
- when the decedent is survived only by a minor distributee, the statute of limitations can be “tolled,” or paused, until a legal guardian has been appointed or the surviving distributee reaches 18 years of age, whichever comes first
- when the defendant’s alleged misconduct is subject to criminal proceedings, the decedent’s estate has 1 year from the end of the state’s criminal action to file its own civil lawsuit
- when the decedent’s death was caused by the terrorist attacks on September 11, the estate has up to 2.5 years (or 30 months) from the date of death to file suit
It should be clear that many wrongful death lawsuits will not benefit from these limited exceptions to New York State’s statute of limitations. Contacting an experienced wrongful death attorney in Manhattan as soon as possible is critical.