Defenses in a Wrongful Death Suit
In addition to statute of limitation restrictions, there are defenses that may be used to combat a wrongful death suit. The available defenses are limited to those that could have been made against the decedent had he or she lived and brought a claim for personal injuries. The main defenses are causation and contributory negligence. The availability of either of these defenses may bar a plaintiff from recovery or reduce the amount of damages awarded.
In order to hold a defendant responsible for wrongful death, you must prove that the defendant's conduct was the cause of the decedent's death. To satisfy this requirement, you do not have to show that the defendant was the only responsible party. You must only show a connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury, such that the injury would not have occurred without the defendant's actions.
Example: If a person was killed on Corporation X's amusement ride in part due to improper maintenance of a seat belt, but also because another rider pushed the decedent off the seat, Corporation X may still be found liable for damages.
Often, the period when the fault occurred and when death results can take seconds, as in the case of a car accident where a victim dies at the scene, or months, as where a doctor prescribes the wrong medication that over time results in the patient's death. The period between the fault and the injury, however, is not a controlling factor necessary to show proximate cause. For example, if a decedent died due to injuries he received in an accident three months ago, the negligent wrongdoer is still liable.
The continuous causal connection between the fault and the injury is the important element necessary to prove causation in a wrongful death suit. Think of the concept of continuous causal connection as a line that connects from the fault to the injury. The line represents the sequence of events that occur from the point of fault to the point of injury. In the car accident example mentioned earlier, the defendant's car crashed into the victim's car and the victim died. In that instance, there was an obvious connection between the fault (the auto crash) and the injury (death).
If there is no causal connection, the defendant will not be found responsible for the death. If prior to death the decedent did not exercise reasonable care in obtaining treatment for the injury, it might be found that the proximate cause of the decedent's death was not the defendant's conduct or activity, but rather the decedent's own actions.
Example: A person gets a serious head injury and does not get immediate medical attention. After several days of head pain, the person goes the hospital. While at the hospital, the person dies from his injuries while the hospital was delayed in trying to diagnose his injury. Although, the hospital may have been negligent in its treatment, the proximate cause of death may be found to be the person's failure to seek medical attention if earlier treatment may have prevented his death.
Contributory negligence is conduct by the decedent or beneficiaries that contributed to his death.
Example: A person riding a bicycle at night without brakes or light reflectors who is struck and killed by a truck may be contributorily negligent.
If the decedent or beneficary is also negligent, the amount of any damages awarded may be reduced by the percentage of fault assigned to the decedent or beneficary. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.012. If the decedent's or a beneciary's responsibility is greater than 50 percent, however, he or she cannot recover damages. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.001.