Losing a loved one is always a tragic and traumatic event, no matter what the circumstances. But when the death is caused by the negligence or wrongful conduct of another, the pain and frustration can be immeasurably greater. When this is the case, those who are left to pick up the pieces deserve to be fully compensated for the loss of someone close to them.
At Peake & Fowler, we know that no amount of compensation can make up for your loss, yet we also know that the death of a loved one can cause serious financial and emotional distress for the surviving family members. It is simply unjust and intolerable for the family to have to bear these additional costs, while the wrongdoer responsible for the death is not held accountable. That is why our attorneys have an unwavering devotion to the cause of a wrongful death lawsuit for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased.
South Carolina Wrongful Death Law
South Carolina law recognizes wrongful death actions when a death is caused by the negligence or misconduct of another. The law allows a lawsuit to be brought by the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate, who may recover legal damages on behalf of the decedent’s heirs.
The executor or administrator may already be named if the decedent had a will. If there was no will, however, then this person will need to be appointed by the court before a wrongful death lawsuit can be initiated. Regardless of whether or not there was a will, proceeds of any wrongful death settlement or judgment do not go to the decedent’s estate – they are distributed directly to the heirs-at-law as if the decedent died without a will.
This is an important distinction for a couple of reasons. First of all, since proceeds from the lawsuit go directly to the decedent’s heirs-at-law, they are not subject to creditor claims against the estate. Secondly, those who receive the proceeds might not be the same people who are named in the will.
The order of heirs who receive the proceeds from a South Carolina wrongful death action are as follows:
- If the decedent had a spouse and child(ren), proceeds are divided equally between the two, with 50% going to the spouse and 50% to the child(ren);
- If there is a spouse but no children, the spouse receives everything;
- If there are children but no spouse, the children receive everything;
- If the decedent had no spouse or children, then proceeds go to any surviving parent(s);
- If there is no spouse, children, or parents, then proceeds go to surviving siblings and other heirs at law.
It is important to note that a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action that is entirely separate from any criminal proceeding that may have resulted from a loved one’s death. If the party responsible for the death is charged criminally, their punishment (if convicted of a crime) may include fines, jail time, and other penalties. But even if there is a criminal conviction, this does nothing to compensate the surviving family members for the immense losses they have suffered because of their loved one’s death. The only way to obtain compensation for these losses is through a civil action.
Damages from South Carolina Wrongful Death Claims
Although, you cannot place a value on a human life, monetary damages are the only way to compensate survivors for the loss of a loved one. In a wrongful death lawsuit, damages are awarded for both economic and noneconomic losses. Economic damages are direct monetary losses such as funeral and burial expenses, lost earnings, and damage to property. Non-economic damages are losses that are less tangible and more difficult to quantify, such as psychological distress, loss of household services, and loss of companionship, guidance, and support.
In some wrongful death cases, exemplary (punitive) damages may be awarded. Punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff for their losses, but rather to “punish” the responsible party for their wrongdoing if they are found to have acted recklessly, willfully, or with malice in causing the death.
The Cost of Human Life: What is a Wrongful Death Claim Worth in South Carolina?
The state of South Carolina does not place a monetary value on a person’s life. As such, damages from a wrongful death lawsuit are based on the financial expenses and other losses incurred by surviving family members, rather than a fixed dollar amount.
Damages from a wrongful death claim can be divided into three general categories:
- Economic Damages: These are actual monetary losses incurred by the decedent and his/her survivors. Examples may include medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, lost wages, loss of future earnings, and property damage.
- Non-Economic Damages: These are losses that are real but intangible and more difficult to quantify. Examples include emotional distress and loss of companionship, guidance, and support.
- Punitive Damages: If the actions of the party responsible for your loved one’s death were willful, wanton, malicious, or fraudulent, punitive damages may be awarded to punish the wrongdoer and help deter them (and others) from committing similarly egregious acts in the future.
Wrongful Death includes Survival Actions
South Carolina law also recognizes survival actions, which can be brought in conjunction with a wrongful death lawsuit. Together, wrongful death and survival actions help to ensure that the surviving family members receive all that they are entitled to. A survival claim is essentially a claim for damages that a decedent would have recovered through a personal injury lawsuit had they lived. Therefore, it is possible to recover compensation for any medical expenses and lost wages incurred by the decedent prior to their death, as well as any conscious pain and suffering they had to endure during that time.
Survival claims work a little bit differently from wrongful death lawsuits. The lawsuit is still brought by the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate, but the proceeds go into the decedent’s estate rather than being paid directly to the decedent’s heirs at law. From there, creditors of the estate may be able to file a claim against these proceeds to satisfy unpaid debts. And whatever is left over is paid to the heirs listed in the will if there is one. This means that proceeds from a survival claim could end up going to different recipients than proceeds from a wrongful death lawsuit.
Time Limits for South Carolina Wrongful Death Actions
If you are considering a wrongful death lawsuit or survivor action, you should be aware that there is a three-year statute of limitations for most personal injury lawsuits in South Carolina. If you do not initiate your action within this timeframe, a court will most likely refuse to allow it to proceed.
Three years might seem like a long time, but keep in mind that before a wrongful death or survivor action can be initiated, a personal representative must be named for the decedent’s estate. If there is no will, this process could take a number of months. There are also instances in which the statute of limitations is shorter, such as if you are suing a government agency. And if you wait too long, evidence has a tendency to disappear and the memories of witnesses tend to fade. For these and many other reasons, it is best to get an experienced wrongful death lawyer involved in your case as soon as possible.
Get Help Recovering for Your Loss
Wrongful death cases can be challenging for the plaintiff, since the person who was injured is not available to relate the circumstances of the incident. However, the attorneys at Peake & Fowler have enough experience with personal injury and wrongful death matters to know how to properly investigate the accident and build a strong case against the responsible parties. If you have lost a loved one due to the negligence or misconduct of another, contact Peake & Fowler in Columbia at 803-998-2412.