How To Determine Liability In A Wrongful Death Case

One of the first questions a wrongful death lawyer has to address with a case is determining who the liable party is. Legally speaking, liability and responsibility aren't always the same thing, especially when it comes to who is at fault. A wrongful death attorney will look at the following three things when considering who to pursue a case against.

Proximate Cause

The first problem to sort out before identifying a defendant in a case is figuring out what and who represent the most proximate cause of the incident in question. Suppose a trucking accident happened during a snowstorm and killed a car's driver. If the truck would have been able to avoid the collision except for poor brake maintenance and bald tires, then the trucking company's poor maintenance is likely to be the proximate cause. Conversely, if the incident was unavoidable because the suddenness of the storm created impossible conditions to control the rig, then it might be an Act of God in legal terms. On the other hand, if the trucking company knew hours in advance that the storm was going to be bad and ordered the operator to keep going, then that decision might move the proximate cause back to the company.

Liability Goes to the Top

Notably, the person who is closest to the proximate cause isn't necessarily the liable party. In the trucking example, the rig's driver is very close to the incident. However, the trucking company would be the liable party.

You'll see similar scenarios in a range of situations. If the ride operator at an amusement park had a history of drug problems and was high on the job, for example, liability probably lands with the park and not the employee. There is even a version where liability for a death in a bar fight might land with the bar and not one of the combatants under some legal theories of negligent security and the duty to protect.

Opportunity to Prevent the Incident

Generally, to be liable for a wrongful death, a defendant had to have had the opportunity to take reasonable steps to prevent what happened. If a grocery store clerk didn't clean up a spill for an hour after they knew it happened, the store is probably liable if someone cracked their head during a slip-and-fall accident. Conversely, if there was a spill and the slip-and-fall incident happened just seconds later, the store may not be liable.

Strict liability is a major exception. Dangerous undertakings, such as working with explosive or exotic animals, make participants liable in all incidents.