Like other states, the Texas wrongful death statute defines which family members can file a lawsuit when a person’s death is caused by another’s negligence. Relatives that are legally allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit are called wrongful death beneficiaries.
States differ in how they defined these wrongful death beneficiaries. Under Texas law, wrongful death beneficiaries include the following relatives of the deceased person:
• Spouse (whether a ceremonial or common-law marriage)
• Children (natural or adopted)
As an experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer, I regularly counsel grieving family members who are considering a wrongful death lawsuit. One of the first things we go over is how to evaluate each potential wrongful death beneficiary’s claim.
Although the liability or negligence facts are the same for everyone in a given matter, each wrongful death beneficiary will have a different measure of potential damages. As with all negligence-related claims, there are potentially economic damages and non-economic damages at play.
Economic damages refer to a past or future monetary loss that a wrongful death beneficiary sustains as a result of the loved one’s death. In some situations, a wrongful death beneficiary will have economic damages, but in other cases they won’t. A few examples will help clear this up.
Let’s say that the person who passed away was a husband and father who was working at the time of his death in providing income for his wife and child. The wife and child would have an economic damages claim in a wrongful death lawsuit because of the past and future lost income. If the deceased man’s parents were still alive, but he didn’t financially support them and there’s no evidence that he had plans to do so in the future, then the parents wouldn’t have an economic damages claim.
Non-economic damages include things that are a bit harder to define with a dollar sign—mental anguish, pain and suffering, and the loss of a close relationship. A minor child’s loss of a parent is different than a spouse’s loss of his or her partner or a parent’s loss of an adult child.
It’s up to a jury to decide how much money to award each wrongful death beneficiary, based on the nature of that person’s relationship with the deceased. In some cases where there is an estranged relationship, a jury would likely award nothing, even though the person is legally a wrongful death beneficiary.
In my opinion, it’s usually better for all wrongful death beneficiaries who want to pursue a claim for a family member’s death to be involved in one lawsuit and, if there isn’t a conflict, by the same attorney. This allows a unified litigation strategy, saves expenses, and typically allows for more efficient resolution of the claims.
Plus, from a practical perspective, a defendant rarely would entertain settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit in which all of the wrongful death beneficiaries aren’t parties or haven’t waived their interest. This is particularly true when the statute of limitations has not expired. A defendant doesn’t want to settle one wrongful death lawsuit only to have a different family member file another one over the same set of facts.