The accidental death of a friend or family member is one of the most devastating things someone can personally go through. The pain and grief associated with a sudden, premature death is unenviable to say the least, and something we all hope to never experience. This trauma is exacerbated when that death is caused by malpractice, an auto accident, or the otherwise negligent actions of another party.
But what constitutes wrongful death in Oregon from a legal perspective? If you expect that a death was caused by the negligence or otherwise wrongful actions of someone else, what can you do?
As experienced Oregon wrongful death attorneys, we’re here to answer your questions in the form of this blog post, detailing the legal side of wrongful death in Oregon. If you’re still left with questions, we’ll always be here to guide you in a free consultation.
With that, we’ll help define wrongful death and explore the common causes and insurance implications.
What Is Wrongful Death?
To define wrongful death, we’ll take a closer look at Oregon law. “Wrongful death” is defined as the premature passing of a victim “caused by the wrongful act or omission of another.” Specifically, it highlights this ‘act or omission’ as a practice or action that, should the victim have survived, would have allowed them to file a personal injury lawsuit.
Additionally, Oregon considers wrongful death to be a civil cause of action. Because of this, a plaintiff must be able to meet the standards of the preponderance of evidence – in other words, there must be proof.
Who Can File A Wrongful Death Suit In Oregon?
In Oregon, under ORS.30.020, only the personal representative (or executor) of a deceased person’s estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit. If the victim has a will, the executor will usually be named within it. In the event that there’s no will or otherwise legally named executor – or if the chosen person is unable to act as the personal representative – a probate court will appoint someone else.
Usually, if the deceased has a surviving spouse, they will be the appointed representative. This is not always the case, however, and is ultimately dependent on individual circumstances.
What Are the Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death?
Life experiences demonstrate to most of us that we live in a very dangerous world. Of course, some dangers are more apparent than others. For example, almost all of us have witnessed the carnage that can result from motor vehicle accidents and semi-truck collisions. Similarly, we hear stories almost daily in the news media about violent death occurring around the country as a result of intentional criminal acts.
On the other hand, even though most of us have heard of the opioid epidemic by now, many are unaware just how great has become the associated loss of life. Similarly, many people are less aware of tragic deaths occurring across the country as the result of medical negligence, nursing home negligence and abuse, and a variety of other causes.
Accidental Death Statistics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released mortality statistics through the year 2016. The agency lists “accidental death” as the fourth highest cause of death in the United States. This category is generally considered to comprise accidental, preventable deaths. It does not include intentional acts, such as homicide, and does not include death from natural causes.
Are These Accidental Deaths the Same as Wrongful Deaths?
The answer is “sometimes, yes, and sometimes, no.” In Oregon, a cause of action for wrongful death arises when a person’s death is caused by the wrongful act or omission of another. For example, if a driver, due to no fault of another person, runs into a tree and dies, it would be an accidental death, but not a wrongful death.
On the other hand, if a semi-truck runs the car off the road, resulting in the driver’s death, it would be a wrongful death. Below, we will take a look at some of the top causes of accidental death listed by the CDC, which can also constitute wrongful death.
Amazingly, this is now the number one cause of accidental death listed by the CDC. Undoubtedly, the opioid epidemic has played a role in the rise of this cause of death. The negligent prescribing of these, or any other drugs, by a physician might give rise to a wrongful death action. Additionally, it is becoming much more common to attempt to hold big pharmaceutical companies responsible for their products.
Motor Vehicle Accidents
It should come as no surprise that motor vehicle accidents are high on this list. With millions of cars and semi-trucks on the road daily, crashes happen far too frequently. When these crashes are caused by the negligence of another person, an action for wrongful death is appropriate.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, falls finish at number three on the CDC’s list. Some falls are not caused by anyone’s negligence and are only tragic accidents. However, many falls are caused by the acts of others. A third party might leave a slippery substance on the floor or create a hazard which causes someone to trip. When death results, a wrongful death action is appropriate.
While we have listed the top three causes, remember that there are lots of others, such as medical malpractice, nursing home negligence, and exposure to asbestos. Also, this article focused on accidental death – intentional actions can also be a basis for a wrongful death action.
Is Life Insurance Affected by A Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Anyone living in modern American society is likely very familiar with the concept of insurance. When we stop to think about it, it seems that insurance plays a role in almost every aspect of our lives. We routinely insure our cars, our health, our homes, and our lives. However, many of us have also learned the hard way that insurance can be complicated.
We have previously discussed at length the complexities of automobile insurance in Oregon. Similarly, life and other forms of insurance have their own laundry list of complexities. Policies may contain defined terms, conditions, exclusions, and other contractual provisions which affect coverage.
How Life Insurance Works
Certainly, most people understand the basics of life insurance. The policyholder pays a premium to the insurance company. If he or she dies during the policy term, the insurance proceeds are paid to the insured’s beneficiaries. There are several common types of life insurance, two of which are discussed below.
Whole Life Insurance – Whole Life Insurance covers an insured for as long as he or she continues to pay the premium. There is no pre-specified short-term date range of coverage, such as one sees with home or automobile insurance. Whole Life insurance also accumulates a portion of the premium, often called the “cash value,” which ultimately belongs to the insured.
Term Insurance – Term insurance is a pure form of insurance, which, when purchased, covers a specified term (date range). If the insured does not die, there is no cash value, and the insured does not receive any money from the insurance company. For this reason, term insurance is generally less expensive than whole-life insurance.
Common Exclusions in Life Insurance Policies
Remember, a life insurance policy is a contract. The contract provides that the insurance company agrees to pay agreed-upon proceeds upon the death of the insured. However, insurance policies also contain exclusions. These exclusions set forth circumstances under which the insurance company is not required to pay. One should carefully review the insurance policy to be aware of these exclusions. Below, we will take a look at a few common exclusions.
This exclusion provides that the insurer does not have to pay in the event that the insured commits suicide. The clause is often limited to the first two years of the policy. The clause is designed to eliminate the possibility that one who intends to commit suicide first purchases a life insurance policy.
Some policies specifically exclude death at war. Thus, the policy would not pay in the event the insured dies in a war. However, there may be instances wherein the U.S. Military will provide some manner of compensation to the deceased spouse or family in the event of an active duty death.
Many policies provide that if the insured’s death results from a certain hazardous activity (which is named), the policy will not pay. The specific activities deemed hazardous can vary from policy to policy. Examples of activities classified as hazardous in some policies include the following:
- Sky diving
- Hang gliding
- Motorcycle racing
- Scuba diving
- Aviation (this doesn’t apply to commercial flights)
Wrongful Death and Life Insurance
As we have previously discussed=, wrongful death occurs in Oregon when one person wrongfully causes the death of another person. So, if a person dies and a wrongful death lawsuit is filed, is the deceased’s life insurance policy affected? The answer is “no” – the filing of the lawsuit in no way affects the viability of a life insurance policy. Thus, the life insurance beneficiary would generally be entitled to recover.
However, one of the exclusions discussed above could potentially affect life insurance coverage. For example, assume the deceased was a passenger in a small private plane that crashed due to another person’s piloting error. If the passenger’s life insurance policy has an aviation exclusion, the policy may not have to pay. However, a wrongful death action could be pursued against the pilot, so long as the statute of limitations has not passed.
Call with Your Questions
Sometimes, accidental death is truly an accident, with no one to blame. On other occasions, even though a death may be classified as “accidental,” the accident is the result of another person’s negligence. While both of these circumstances are dreadful and unfortunate, there are times when seeking legal aid may at least help shoulder some of this burden.
In such circumstances, all of society is protected when everyone is held accountable for their actions. If you have suffered the loss of a loved one, and have questions about another person’s liability, please call so that we can help. We are familiar with wrongful death laws and can help you investigate and evaluate the circumstances of your case with compassion and understanding. We know you’re going through an unimaginable situation right now. Our goal is to provide you with clarity and a path to feeling whole again.