What Are the Steps in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

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Losing a loved one is always a tragedy, but it is made all the more painful when the death could have been prevented but for someone’s negligent or reckless conduct. When an at-fault party causes the death of someone else, certain eligible survivors have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This is a claim by which the plaintiffs can seek certain damages like funeral expenses and lost financial support and benefits.

What is the process involved in filing one of these wrongful death lawsuits and how can an injury attorney help? Contact our firm at Schiller & Hamilton to learn more.

How to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in South Carolina

When a client retains our firm to represent them in their wrongful death lawsuit we immediately get to work advocating for them. These are the steps in preparing and filing a wrongful death lawsuit:

Conducting an investigation

We start by reviewing the factual circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one. We examine such evidence as police reports and medical records. Additionally, if there were any witnesses to what happened, we find out what they know. As soon as possible we analyze the accident scene to take pictures, record video, determine if surveillance cameras were in the area, etc.

Naming possible defendants

One objective of our investigation is to uncover the identities of the individuals, facilities, and entities that may have played a role in the decedent’s death. More at-fault parties can potentially mean higher compensation for the victim’s survivors. Many of these individuals and entities may not ultimately be named as defendants but could still possess valuable information about the wrongful death.

Identifying beneficiaries

In South Carolina, only certain survivors can be the beneficiaries of a wrongful death lawsuit.

These generally include the surviving spouse, children, and in some cases, parents. We get their basic contact information and keep them apprised of the legal proceedings.

Opening an estate

If the decedent left behind a last will, its named executors can file the wrongful death claim on behalf of the eligible survivors listed above. If no will was left behind, the court may appoint a personal representative to serve in a similar capacity. Either way, an estate will be opened so the lawsuit can be filed.

Preparing and filing the lawsuit

Once we have the evidence, allegations, and identities of the defendants, we are ready to draft and file the wrongful death lawsuit. There are certain rules, known as rules of civil procedure, which govern the contents of court filings, notices, and other aspects of litigation. We know these rules and apply them as we file and serve your lawsuit.

What Happens After Filing?

After the lawsuit has been filed, the proverbial wheels begin turning as litigation starts to heat up. The following usually comes next:

Discovery

This is one of the most critical steps in a wrongful death lawsuit. Discovery is the process by which the parties (plaintiff and defendants) request and exchange relevant information about the lawsuit. Discovery tools include subpoenas, depositions, requests for documents, interrogatories, and requests for admission. We help draft and send requests, respond to requests you receive from the other parties, and go to court if needed to compel the production of information and documents.

Pre-trial motions

Defendants may file several pre-trial motions early in the case to attempt to dispense with the lawsuit or remove themselves from it. Common examples are the motion to dismiss and the motion for summary judgment. These are important actions taken by the defendant to attempt to weaken your case, so we take them seriously and go to work contesting them.

Further investigations

As discovery responses are received, we may use the information gathered to conduct additional investigations. These could uncover more evidence and possibly additional defendants. The investigation is an ongoing process that may continue up to trial.

Preparing for and (If Necessary) Conducting Trial

Settlement of a wrongful death claim is always possible, from the time the death happens up to the trial date. However, we never assume the case will settle on terms that are fair to our clients.

Therefore, we prepare for trial and conduct litigation as follows:

Mediation and negotiation

The judge may order mediation in your case. This is an out-of-court process by which the parties negotiate, compromise, and hopefully settle the case without the need for a trial. It is guided by a mediator, a neutral third party who does not decide anything for the parties but facilitates productive discussions.

Settlement approval

If the wrongful death lawsuit settles, South Carolina law requires that a court approve the settlement. Notably, a settlement can happen even if no lawsuit is pending. Regardless, the judge must conduct a hearing to review the relevant facts of the lawsuit, the terms of the settlement, and more.

Jury selection

At this stage, it’s time to expect a trial. Jury selection is the first step of a trial and requires selecting the men and women who will decide the case. This is a complicated process that involves weeding out unsuitable jurors and choosing individuals who can fairly evaluate the evidence in your case.

The trial: presenting evidence and making arguments

Assuming the case doesn’t settle, the trial goes forward. This includes numerous steps:

  • Direct and cross-examination of lay and expert witnesses (expert witnesses are individuals with highly technical knowledge who can explain complex subjects to a jury)
  • Presentation of the evidence, and objection to the defendant’s evidence, by the rules of evidence
  • Opening and closing arguments

At Schiller & Hamilton, we have experienced trial litigators who understand the rules of evidence, civil procedure, and local court rules that govern wrongful death trials.

Appeals

The defendant may appeal the outcome of the trial, which could mean more court involvement.

But there are some important things to know about this. First, a valid appeal cannot be made simply because the defendant doesn’t like the verdict. There must be a serious legal error or no evidence to support the jury’s decision.

Also, during an appeal, defendants are often more willing to settle because they understand the delays and risks of appealing.

How Long Does a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Take?

Because every case is different, there is no way to give a standard answer to this question. Some cases take only a few months while others can take years.

Factors that may affect the duration of the lawsuit include:

  • The amount of damages sought
  • The number of defendants
  • The strength of the evidence
  • The quality of legal counsel
  • The willingness of the defendant’s lawyers and insurers to settle
  • Whether the defendant engaged in any egregious or intentionally harmful conduct
  • Court dockets and attorneys’ schedules

It should be noted that you only have a certain amount of time to file a lawsuit, so we strongly advise taking action sooner rather than later.

Contact a Lawyer Regarding the Wrongful Death Case Process

At Schiller & Hamilton, we work to expedite our client’s cases by exploring all avenues of settlement and building the strongest possible case.

To get started with your wrongful death claim, call us today at 843-379-5006 or use our online contact form.

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