Introduction to Wrongful Death Law
If your loved one’s death was caused by the negligence or wrongdoing of another, you may be entitled to recover for both the pain and suffering that your loved one went through as a result of the incident, and also for the losses that you and your family are now suffering because of his or her absence.
Michigan’s wrongful death statutes allow anyone who suffers damages as a result of the death to recover for that loss. But all individuals who wish to recover must bring their claims in one consolidated action. The estate of the deceased must appoint a personal representative, who will represent both the estate and anyone else who may have a claim.
The Wrongful Death Act Preserves Negligence Claims
Michigan’s wrongful death statutes provide a statutory method for preserving any claims which the decedent may have at the time of his or her death. However, it's important to understand that the wrongful death statute is not an independent cause of action, meaning that a lawsuit which claims wrongful death must allege some particular underlying claim, such as one for negligence, which caused the wrongful death. Because MCL 600.2922(1) states that the estate of the decedent may bring an action against any individual, corporation, or other entity responsible for the death of the decedent or injuries which resulted in death, if the death was caused by “wrongful act, neglect, or fault of another,” the proper cause of action in any wrongful death claim is the underlying tortious action appropriate to the specifics of the case.
The Underlying Cause of Action
In most instances, the underlying cause of action will be one based in negligence. Negligence cases require a Plaintiff to prove that:
(1) that the Defendant owed a legal duty to the Plaintiff;
(2) that Defendant breached that duty;
(3) that the Defendant’s breach of the legal duty was the proximate cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries; and
(4) that the Plaintiff sustained damages as a result of Defendant’s breach.
Moning v Alfono, 400 Mich 425, 437 (1977).
Defining the duty which the Defendant owes to the Plaintiff will be based upon the facts and circumstances of the particular case.
Historical Basis of Wrongful Death Claims
Historically, Michigan common-law held that when an individual dies, any claims he may have died along with him. Hyatt v Adams, 16 Mich 180, 191 (1867). This premise was based on the theory that the right to bring a personal injury action was a personal right held by the decedent only, and that right was not transferable at the time of death.
This theory had profound implications on two separate types of cases. First, it meant that the family or estate of a decedent had no legal action against the individual or entity that caused the death, because the legal right belonged only to the decedent.
Second, it prevented pursuance of any cases which the decedent might have had pending at the time of his or her death. For example, if the decedent had been injured in a car accident, but later died as a result of causes unrelated to the accident, any suit for the damages sustained in the car accident would immediately be dismissed, as there would no longer be a viable plaintiff.
Michigan’s wrongful death statutes make clear that both types of cases are now viable. Specifically, MCL 600.2921 notes that “all actions and claims survive death.” It also states that in addition to claims for injuries which result in death, any actions “pending at the time of death” may be amended and continued within the context of the wrongful death statute.