Wrongful death benefits can be given to someone who suffered financially due to the deceased person’s death. This usually means the decedent’s surviving family members, although it could include others.
The victim of an accident or injury would usually file a personal injury lawsuit on his or her own behalf and collect any damages awarded. Obviously, this is not possible in a wrongful death lawsuit. Therefore, a personal representative must file suit on the deceased’s behalf, whose heirs will receive the damages.
Let’s explore everything you need to know about who is entitled to wrongful death benefits in Arkansas and what you can do to protect your rights.
Understanding the Arkansas Wrongful Death Statute
The Arkansas wrongful death statute (Ark. Code § 16-62-102 (2022)) sets out who can file and benefit from a wrongful death action.
Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in Arkansas?
Under Arkansas state law, wrongful death lawsuits may be filed by “the personal representative of the deceased person.”
The personal representative is usually named in the deceased person’s will. This is usually a close relative, often the deceased’s spouse or child. However, if a person dies without making a will (intestate), a family member or other person can petition the court to be appointed as the personal representative.
If there is no personal representative, the Arkansas wrongful death statute also allows “the heirs at law of the deceased person” to bring about a wrongful death action. This may apply in a wrongful death suit involving a single adult without children who did not leave an estate and did not have a will at the time of his or her death; the surviving parents would be the heirs at law.
Who can benefit from an Arkansas wrongful death action?
Wrongful death lawsuits differ from personal injury lawsuits in one important way. Although only one person files the lawsuit, there may be multiple beneficiaries.
Of course, each case is unique. How many people benefit will depend on the makeup of your family and other factors.
Three groups of people can benefit from a wrongful death action under Arkansas law:
- The surviving family members of the deceased: This includes his or her spouse, children, parents, and siblings
- Anyone standing in loco parentis for the deceased person: Under Arkansas law, this would include anyone who had “the rights, duties, and responsibilities” of a parent toward the deceased
- Anyone to whom the deceased stood in loco parentis at any point during the deceased’s lifetime: This includes anyone who qualifies, regardless of his or her age
The first group is easy to understand. However, if you have any doubt about whether you qualify under categories 2 or 3, talk to an experienced Arkansas wrongful death attorney. He or she can explain where you stand and whether you have the right to receive damages.
Time limits on filing wrongful death lawsuits
In Arkansas, all wrongful death claims must be filed within 3 years. However, the time limit is 2 years if the wrongful death occurred due to medical malpractice.
If your loved one tragically lost his or her life in a homicide, there may be other statutes of limitations at play. Therefore, the key takeaway is to consult an experienced wrongful death attorney as soon as possible after your family member’s death.
In the initial case evaluation, a wrongful death attorney will listen carefully to what happened to your loved one and explain your legal rights. He or she can advise you on how likely your case is to succeed and the challenges you may encounter along the way.
Damages in Arkansas Wrongful Death Cases
Under Arkansas law, families may seek both compensatory and punitive damages in wrongful death claims.
Compensatory damages cover the economic and non-economic losses the family suffered as a result of their loved one’s death. Punitive damages are designed to punish the at-fault party and are usually awarded when his or her actions were malicious or particularly reckless.
Family claims vs. estate claims
Arkansas law allows the personal representative or heirs to pursue damages for losses suffered by the deceased person’s estate and by their families. These are known as estate claims and family claims.
Estate claims cover losses incurred by the decedent between the incident that led to his or her death and their demise. This could include:
- Medical expenses
- Pain and suffering
- Lost earnings
- Caretaker expenses
- Burial expenses
- Funeral costs
Family claims pertain to the losses suffered by the surviving family members due to their loved one’s death. These damages fall into two categories, economic and non-economic, and could include:
- Deceased person’s lost earnings
- Benefits, such as health insurance and retirement payments
- Pain and suffering caused by the loved one’s death
- Loss of consortium – Affection, marital intimacy, and the possibility of having children
- Lost support
- Services expected to be rendered, such as childcare and elder care
- Guidance, education, and training expected to be provided to children
In Arkansas, there is currently no cap on wrongful death settlements.
Calculating wrongful death settlements
Calculating what someone would have earned had he or she lived is very complex. It’s important to have an experienced wrongful death lawyer on your side who can make an accurate estimate.
Your wrongful death attorney will consider factors such as:
- The deceased person’s age
- His or her earnings history
- Employee benefits he or she received
- Lost earning capacity (if he or she was likely to have qualified for a higher-paying job in the future)
- The deceased person’s state of health
- The age of the deceased’s children
- The expected lifespan of the beneficiaries, especially the surviving spouse
Calculating a fair settlement may be particularly tricky if the deceased person was a full-time caretaker, stay-at-home parent, or minor who had not yet embarked on his or her career. A wrongful death attorney may consult a financial expert to assist him or her in calculating a settlement that takes all these factors into account.
Once your wrongful death lawyer has calculated the settlement, he or she is ready to begin negotiations with the at-fault party’s insurance company. Your attorney will send a demand letter outlining the compensation he or she believes is reasonable.
It may take many months of negotiations, but settling is often possible without going as far as a trial. Yet, if the insurance company does not agree to a reasonable payout, your wrongful death lawyer may advise taking the case to court, where a judge or jury will decide your case.
If a case settles out of court, it is very unlikely that the family will receive punitive damages. When a case is tried in court, the judge or jury may decide to award punitive damages to punish a defendant who acted willfully, maliciously, or recklessly and shows little remorse.
In the past, these damages were capped at $250,000. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the cap unconstitutional in 2011, meaning that there is currently no cap in place on punitive damages.
How Wrongful Death Settlements Are Distributed
Under Arkansas law, none of the financial compensation awarded becomes part of the deceased person’s estate. The full amount will be paid to the claimants, regardless of whether they were awarded under an estate claim or a family claim.
Some states divide wrongful death settlements equally among the deceased person’s surviving family members. However, in Arkansas, things are done differently.
Dividing settlements among family members
In Arkansas, settlements are distributed according to the losses or suffering each family member has had to endure. The closer the relationship and level of financial dependence on the deceased, the greater the share of the compensation.
For example, if the deceased had two children, their ages and financial situation would be taken into account. Imagine one child is a minor, living at home, and expected to be financially dependent for many years to come. Yet, the second child is of working age, already living away from home, and no longer financially dependent.
In this case, the younger child is likely to receive a larger payout than the older. The emotional support the deceased parent would have provided to the younger sibling would also be considered.
Who divides the wrongful death settlement?
If the court awards a wrongful death settlement, it will divide the financial compensation among the family members. However, if the case settles out of court, the personal representative will then be responsible for distributing the funds.
Clearly, this process must be handled with tact and discretion. That’s why, when determining your next step, it’s important to seek advice from a wrongful death lawyer who has handled similar cases in the past.
Why You Need Minton Law Firm on Your Side
Filing a wrongful death action is an important way to protect yourself and your family after the unexpected loss of a beloved family member. The compassionate and experienced legal team at Minton Law Firm understands what you are going through. If we agree to take on your case, we will use all our resources to fight the insurance companies for you.
We are headed up by Justin Minton, a former insurance adjuster who knows personal injury law from both sides. He and his team know all the tactics insurance companies try to use and how to build strong cases for their clients. We have a track record of achieving life-changing payouts for the families of wrongful death victims.
We’re proud to serve the people of Little Rock – Pulaski County – Arkansas, Benton – Saline County – Arkansas, and Conway – Faulkner County – Arkansas. Call us 24/7 at 855-Xadjuster for a free case consultation, or fill out our online contact form, and we will get back to you soon.