How Much Is A Wrongful Death Case Worth? 8 Factors To Consider

Chris Davis
Award-winning personal injury attorney and founder of Davis Law Group, P.S. in Seattle, Washington.

There are a number of different variables and factors that can ultimately affect or determine the value of a wrongful death case. It is important for someone pursuing a wrongful death claim to understand what these factors may be and why they can have an impact on civil claims.

Ultimately, we came up with a list of the eight biggest factors that can affect wrongful death settlements and awards, but there are likely even more factors depending on the exact type of case and the details involved. If you or a loved one is currently dealing with the wrongful death of a family member, it may be in your best interests to read through and share these potential issues with them as you pursue a claim.

8 Factors That Affect the Value Of A Wrongful Death Case

1. Damages and losses attributed to the deceased and their dependents. 

The value of a wrongful death case will depend on the number of claimants involved and the damages that are recoverable. The wrongful death of a single, childless 19-year-old young man who is a high school dropout and also unemployed may be much different compared to the wrongful death of a 38-year-old married physician who is a husband and father of four children ages 2,4, 6 and 8.

With the latter scenario as an example, the surviving spouse and each child may have individual claims for the loss of their husband and father. In addition, the physician’s estate has a claim for future lost net earnings, which may be worth millions of dollars if he was a high earner, as many doctors are. On the other hand, the 19-year-old’s death may only involve the estate’s claim for lost earnings, which may be difficult (if not impossible) to predict if his education and employment background is difficult to define.

2. Yourself and other family members or loved ones as witnesses in the claim.

Whether or not a jury will have sympathy for you isn't as influential as whether a jury will like you. This depends on many things. Will they feel empathy for you or will they dislike you? What prejudices will they have for you and against you? Do jurors know someone who has suffered a loss like yours?

The claim adjustor's perception of a jury’s prejudices will also affect the value the insurance company or responsible company places on your claim. Look at the three examples of Jimmy. In each of them, Jimmy’s mom and dad will likely have sympathy from the jury as a cornerstone of the case. The claims adjustor will want to take Mom and Dad’s statement, get a feel for them as people to test the built-in sympathy factor, and if the parents pass the test, serious settlement discussions may follow. If Jimmy’s parents present as rude, obnoxious, or unsympathetic personalities, that could be a road block to settling the case.

The unwritten rule in personal injury law is that, all things being equal, juries have more sympathy for people they respect and can relate to. If the deceased person’s surviving family members come across as likeable, trustworthy, respectable, and genuinely sympathetic, then the jury is likely to award a higher verdict then if family members appear dishonest, unlikeable, and unsympathetic.

If the jury perceives that the survivors are using the lawsuit to “try and get rich” then the verdict may be disappointingly low, or the jury may find in favor of the defendant. But if the jury believes the survivors have suffered and endured much grief and loss as a result of their loved one’s death, then the verdict is likely to be high or at least satisfactory given the other facts and/or legal issues involved.

3. The jury’s perception of how valuable a life the deceased led, and how “good” or “bad” the deceased was. 

Whether the deceased was a “good” person, or if you had a “good” and close relationship with the deceased, is one factor that is also likely to color a jury’s view of a claim. It is easier to give more money for the death of a “valuable” or nice person than it is for someone who is perceived in a negative light.

4. The amount of insurance coverage available to resolve the wrongful death claim. 

In most situations, when the defendant (the responsible person or company you're making a claim against) is either a person or company, the realistic maximum amount of money that can be collected regardless of the injury is the amount of the insurance available to cover your claims. Rarely does it make economic sense to pursue defendants beyond the amount of insurance coverage or readily available settlement funds they have set aside.

For example, in the case of a wrongful death claim that has a jury verdict value of $500,000 and a defendant that only has a $50,000 insurance policy, the choices are: 1) do you settle the case for $50,000; or (2) do you go to trial to get a judgment for $500,000, knowing the defendant has no other assets? You could go to trial, but you will likely never recover the higher amount. In a case like this, once you accept the $50,000 policy limit, you can consider the case as done and the expenses are likely minimal. There is no justifiable legal reason to go after more.

If you are looking for more than the defendant’s insurance policy limits, you will have to go to court, get a jury verdict, and then try to collect that verdict from the defendant’s personal assets, if any exist. But filing a lawsuit and going to trial may cost you a minimum of $50,000 just in expenses alone (not including attorney fees). Washington state attorney ethics rules state that the $50,000 expense must be payable by the client and must come out of the recovery. If you get a verdict for more than $50,000, the defendant’s insurance company will tender its $50,000 policy limits to satisfy its contractual obligation to its insured. That money must then be paid to the lawyer to cover the litigation costs, like discovery expenses, expert fees, and so on.

After the defendant’s insurance policy pays out to cover costs, you then will have to try and collect the remaining $450,000 from the defendant’s personal assets to satisfy the $500,000 judgment. If there are no assets, or if the defendant declares bankruptcy (which is likely), then the judgment becomes worthless. If the defendant does have assets, it may then take years and thousands of dollars in additional attorney fees and costs just to pursue collection efforts. This is why it is almost always preferable to accept the wrongdoer’s insurance policy limits instead of going to trial and trying to collect more. To do otherwise is incredibly risky, and you may have to spend a lot of money without any guarantee that you will get that money back. I tell my clients that you might as well go to Las Vegas and spend your money gambling there because at least you’ll know the odds of winning and getting your money back.

5. The identity of the wrongdoer, the type of witness he or she will make, and what he or she was doing at the time of the accident which led to the death of the deceased. 

How will the jury view the person who is responsible for the accident which killed your loved one? Was the incident an understandable accident, with little chance to portray the responsible person as being “bad” or needing to be punished? Or was the wrongdoer grossly negligent, had the person been drinking/under the influence been drinking, or intentionally chose to design and build a defective product? Your experienced wrongful death lawyer will help you evaluate the strength or weakness of this factor to help you determine the value of your case.

6. The jurisdiction and venue of your case. 

A jury in a sparsely-populated rural county will likely judge the value of a case much differently than a jury in a heavily populated or urban area. The laws of some states may make proving your claim easier or harder. Some trial courts move cases quickly, others take many years to get a case to trial. These two factors are difficult to evaluate on your own, so you will want the help of an attorney.

7. The particular judge and jury you draw. 

A judge has a considerable amount of discretion over what evidence will be let in and kept out at trial. Some judges have a reputation for being “defense-oriented” versus “plaintiff-oriented.” You may also draw a conservative jury versus a more liberal jury. (These qualifiers aren’t political in nature, but go to how the jury reacts.) Each might value the case differently. Some judges and juries look more sympathetically on claims of a wrongful death claimant than in other jurisdictions.

8. The skill and reputation of your lawyer and/or legal team. 

Some lawyers have handled many different wrongful death cases so they will likely be much more versed in the status and nuances involved with the law that covers these types of claims. The skill of your lawyer will have a great deal to do with the value which is placed on your claim. As with anything in life, skill leads to success, success builds reputation, and, in the case of an experienced legal team, reputation leads to larger, quicker and more economically productive recovery.

Please keep in mind that this is only a hypothetical and simplistic discussion of the eight individual factors that may affect the value of a wrongful death case. If you or a loved one is pursuing a wrongful death claim and has questions about the legal process that require concrete answers, it may be in your best interest to consult with an experienced wrongful death lawyer.

A 7-Step Guide To A Fair Wrongful Death Lawsuit Settlement

“How much was your loved one’s life worth?”

It’s an uncomfortable question — one that no one wants to answer.  No amount of money will bring back your loved one.  

When a wrongful death case is settled, many people will look at that $$$ settlement amount and make a judgment. For that reason, you probably want to know what the “average” lawsuit settles for. 

It’s a common question with many complex answers. With all that goes into these cases, the amount of recovery for a wrongful death lawsuit is unique to each person.

So here’s the thing: finding the “average” settlement is more difficult than it sounds. 

Challenging, yes. Impossible, no.

Read on as we walk you through this seven-step guide to the average amount of wrongful death lawsuit settlements.

1. What’s a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Before we go any farther, we should explain one thing first…

What exactly is “wrongful death?”

Well, that’s a great question. 

Wrongful death is a cause of action, or type of claim, brought by the surviving family of a person who has died. Yes, that’s rather general. Specifically, a person that has died as a result of an accident, injury or negligence of another person. 

Essentially, whenever a person or entity wrongfully causes someone’s death, they can be held liable in civil court. Grieving family members can recover money — known as “damages” in civil cases — by filing a wrongful death suit. 

Of course, it’s extremely difficult to put a dollar amount on someone’s life. As you’ll see later, there are many factors that go into determining the value of a wrongful death case.

2. Wrongful Death Settlement Payouts

Below are several recent wrongful death settlement amounts obtained by Davis Law Group. This list is just a sample of the claims handled by our firm:

  • $4 million settlement for the family of a woman killed by a drowsy driver. A local contracting company employee fell asleep behind the wheel, killing a 41-year-old mother of four. 
  • $3.25 million settlement for the family of a boy killed by an inmate that was released early. The State of Washington was found liable for a computer glitch that released many prisoners too early.
  • $3 million settlement on behalf of a married couple that was killed in a high-speed collision with a commercial vehicle. The couple’s sons pursued a wrongful death settlement.
  • $1.35 million settlement after a car crashed through a building, killing a woman. The woman’s husband filed a wrongful death case, which was settled during the jury trial.
  • $585,000 settlement for the family of a 72-year-old man killed while driving on the highway during a snowstorm. The State of Washington was found negligent for failing to properly sand the roadway. 

Again, it is extremely difficult to place a value on someone’s life. And unfortunately, wrongful death cases are often limited to the insurance coverage available.

So, while you may have read about a million dollar verdict in another case, it might not apply to yours. 

That’s the bad news. Even worse: if the defendant has no personal assets, you are limited to the insurance policy limits. It may be even less if there was no insurance.

Some states have a cap on economic losses in a wrongful death claim. Some also have caps for pain and suffering damages. 

3. How are Wrongful Death Cases Valued?

No two wrongful death cases are the same. 

Case in point, the varying estimates that have been applied to the value of life. 

  • $50,000 per year of quality life: The number most private and government-run health insurance plans worldwide use to determine whether to cover a new medical procedure.
  • $129,000 per year of quality life: Based on an analysis of kidney dialysis procedures.

Personal injury attorneys use the following rubric for determining how much money you’ll get in a case:

  • The victim’s age and health
  • The victim’s earning power, status, etc.
  • The victim’s character, intelligence, earning ability, etc.
  • The victim’s dependent children, family, etc.
  • The victim’s medical bills prior to death
  • Funeral expenses

There are other sentimental factors that affect the value of a case. These are harder to put a dollar amount on:

  • The family’s loss of companionship
  • A spouse or partner’s loss of enjoyment of sexual activity
  • The victim’s pain and suffering prior to death

These are just guidelines. A starting point.

As much as some lawyers and adjusters will have you believe, there is no settlement calculator for wrongful death claims. Looking at millions of settlements, it’d be hard to determine an “average” on these cases.

One more thing...

Historically, wrongful death claims for children have been worthless. 

Yes, that’s right. Worthless. 

Even just 100 years ago children were not seen as valuable as they are today. Harsh living conditions meant the death of an infant or young child was not uncommon. It’s sad but true.

As childhood mortality decreased, so did the value of their wrongful death claims. Today, it’s not uncommon to see a child wrongful death claim reach well into the millions. 

4. How Long Does it Take to Settle a Wrongful Death Case?

Here’s the deal: 

The timeframe of your wrongful death case will depend largely on the quality of lawyer you hire. A cheap, inexperienced lawyer might botch the case, settle too quickly, or miss key pieces of evidence.

That all impacts how long a case goes.

The right attorney will know the playbook. Many claims settle out of court, sometimes without filing a lawsuit. This can be a quick and easy process for the family.

Or not. 

If the case is complex and an attorney must sue — meaning the other side contests your case — it might take many months or several years. 

The reality is that insurance companies will sometimes drag their feet on these cases just to wear down the family. They know it’s a stressful time for you, and they’re in no rush.

This is a common bargaining tactic, and one you should be aware of.

5. Do You Have to Pay Taxes on a Wrongful Death Settlement?

No (in most cases).

Let us clarify.

Because most wrongful death settlements are compensatory — the money you got is compensation for pain and suffering — the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn’t consider these taxable.

If the damages are punitive (meant to punish the person or party responsible for the death), then the IRS may take out taxes. 

Consult with an attorney to learn more about how your wrongful death settlement may be taxed.

Types of Wrongful Death Cases

The most common types of wrongful death cases are:

  • Car/truck/motorcycle/bicycle accident: Thousands of car crashes happen in the United States every day. Most wrecks are a result of at least one person’s negligence. This may include a semi truck, pedestrian, bicyclist, or anything else you might encounter on the roadway.
  • Medical malpractice: Mistakes happen, and even the most highly skilled doctors and surgeons mess up. A misdiagnosis of a condition may result in an endless possibility of bad outcomes.
  • On the job accidents: No workplace is 100 percent safe. Manual labor and construction jobs are more dangerous, and the family members of the deceased may be entitled to compensation.
  • Defective products: Companies spend years developing a product so that it’s safe. But product liability remains a top cause of wrongful death around the world. 

6. What is the Statute of Limitations on a Wrongful Death Suit?

Every state has different time limits on when a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed. 

Generally, you have two years from the date of the death. 

Special rules apply to minors, people with mental disability. Check with an attorney in you state to find the exact statute of limitations (SOL) for your case.

But things can get complicated...quickly.

In many states, the SOL doesn’t begin until the harm is discovered. But what exactly does that mean?

For example, if a doctor’s failure to diagnose a disease wasn’t discovered until years later, the SOL may not begin until the patient suffers from the disease. 

There may be an upper limit on the date of discovery in your state. Again, check with an attorney to learn the specifics that apply to your case.

7. How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Payments Made?

The question everyone wants to know.

"How will I get the money?"

The typical wrongful death settlement is paid out by an insurance company who provides coverage for the person or party for whom the death is being blamed. 

For example:

If your loved one died in a semi truck accident, the trucking company’s insurance provider would most likely be the source of the settlement.

These policies usually have a limit. Any damages above that the insurance company is not liable for. 

If there’s not sufficient insurance (or no insurance at all) then the at-fault person is personally responsible for paying the settlement. 

What about punitive damages in a wrongful death case?

We briefly discussed punitive damages above.

But not every state has these. Washington state is one example. 

In states that have them, punitive damages can be awarded where the defendant acted in a reckless manner or engaged in egregious conduct that result in death. Punitive damages are meant to punish and deter similar behavior in the future. 

Washington State Wrongful Death Attorney

An unexpected loss of a loved one is painful enough to bear, but when coupled with feelings of anger, despair, injustice, and a heavy financial toll, the victim’s family may feel hopeless. 

By assigning legitimate fault to the appropriate parties, your wrongful death attorney can help you find financial peace in the midst of one of life’s most terrible times. Should you want to file a survival action, an experienced lawyer can help. 

To get quality results, you must act quickly. Do not hesitate to call. Schedule your free case evaluation with a wrongful death attorney and find out more about the compensation to which you are entitled.

Contact Davis Law Group today at (206) 727-4000, use the chat feature below or fill out the form on this page to get started.