Lauren Blair has been practicing law for more than 25 years. Lauren has been a licensed member in good standing of the Illinois bar since 1994, the year she graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. Prior to law school, Lauren obtained a Bachelor of Arts in government from Cornell University. For the first 20 years of her practice, she worked in mid-size l...

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UPDATED: Oct 31, 2020

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Overview:

  • How attorney’s fees work in a wrongful death case.
  • What qualifies as a wrongful death.
  • How much a wrongful death claim is worth.
  • How long a wrongful death lawsuit or settlement will take
  • Who gets the money when a wrongful death lawsuit is over.

It’s important to understand how the attorney will be paid in a wrongful death lawsuit. Payouts for wrongful death lawsuits can be high, but these cases are often complex, time-consuming, and costly to prosecute, so average attorneys’ fees for wrongful death are normally set as a percentage of the money recovered.

Read on to learn more about attorneys’ fees in wrongful death cases, as well as what qualifies as a wrongful death, how much a wrongful death claim is worth, how long a wrongful death lawsuit or settlement will take, and who gets the money when the wrongful death lawsuit is over.

Do you have a wrongful death claim? Our handy tool above can help you find an attorney to help with your case.

How do attorney’s fees work in wrongful death cases?

The vast majority of wrongful death lawsuits are handled by wrongful death attorneys on a contingency fee basis. This essentially means that their fee is contingent upon winning the case.

No Win–No Fee

A contingency fee means that if you do not win or settle, the lawyer gets nothing for the case. The contingency fee structure removes much of the financial risk of bringing a wrongful death lawsuit since you won’t end up stuck with legal fees or costs unless you receive money yourself. If you do win money through a settlement or trial award, then your lawyer gets a percentage of the money as their fee.

Average Contingency Fee in Wrongful Death Cases

Contingency fees in a wrongful death lawsuit are structured as a percentage of the winning verdict. Depending on the jurisdiction, the fee may be anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the damages, but the average arrangement is between 30 and 40 percent.

Some states establish sliding scales or upper limits on the contingency fees an attorney may collect from their clients in a wrongful death settlement or judgment. For example, in Connecticut, contingency fees for wrongful death lawsuits are statutorily set at 33.33 percent of the first $300,000, 25 percent of the next $300,000, 20 percent of the next $300,000, 15 percent of the next $300,000, and 10 percent of amounts exceeding $1,250,000.

Many lawyers will structure the percentage based on when the case is resolved. For example, the contingency fee agreement may stipulate that 15 percent of damages be paid as an attorney fee if the case settles, but it goes up to 45 percent if the case goes to trial or is appealed.

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What qualifies as a wrongful death?

Wrongful death is a death caused by an accident, a faulty product, or an intentional act. Here’s a video that helps explain it a bit more:

Claimants must typically show:

  • The defendant caused the death (completely or in part);
  • The defendant was negligent in causing the death or responsible for the death as a matter of law (e.g., strict liability);
  • The deceased’s spouse, dependents and/or beneficiaries are alive; and
  • The deceased’s death has caused monetary losses.

The last element is key in that claimants must prove they have been financially harmed as a result of the death, whether it be through incurring medical and funeral expenses or the loss of future income and benefits.

How much is a wrongful death claim worth?

The payout for wrongful death lawsuits can be high to compensate for the loss of human life and provide financial support for dependents. There is no general wrongful death lawsuit settlement average, but according to the Better Government Association, in 2014, wrongful death settlement payments from Illinois public hospitals ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to multiple millions.

While it’s difficult to put a value on a life, some government agencies have calculated that value statistically. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2015 Revised Value of a Statistical Life Guidance identifies $9.4 million as the value of a statistical life for Department of Transportation analyses. According to a 2017 Bloomberg report on the value of statistical life, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $10 million.

A wrongful death recovery can include medical and funeral expenses; loss of anticipated future earnings up until time of retirement or death; loss of benefits, such as pension or medical coverage; loss of care, protection, and companionship to the survivors; pain and suffering of the deceased and mental anguish suffered by the survivors; and even punitive damages. According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, punitive damages are considered punishment and can only be awarded at the court’s discretion.

Depending on your jurisdiction, claimants may be able to recover interest calculated from the time of death, the time the damages were incurred, or from the time of the filing of the lawsuit. That said, future loss damages are reduced to present value.

How long will a wrongful death lawsuit or settlement take?

It’s difficult to predict how long a wrongful death lawsuit or settlement will take. The typical anatomy of a wrongful death lawsuit is similar to other civil actions, with pleadings, discovery, pretrial motions, and settlement conferences before the case is set for trial. How long it will take for a wrongful death claim to settle or get to a jury verdict depends on the unique facts and circumstances of the case, but a reasonable estimate as to how long a wrongful death lawsuit will take is between two and four years.

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Who gets the money when a wrongful death lawsuit is over?

People often ask about who can bring a wrongful death claim. Let’s take a look.

Can siblings and other family members sue for wrongful death damages?

Siblings can sue for wrongful death, as well as spouses, children (in some states the child must be under 18), and parents (in some jurisdictions the deceased must be under 18 at the time of the death). Grandparents, legal dependents, members of the extended family, and the deceased’s estate may also be able to sue depending on state laws.

How are wrongful death money damages divided between the attorney and family members?

Wrongful death damages are split between the attorney and the plaintiff based on the agreed-upon percentages. Many contingency fee agreements allow the attorney to take money from the judgment or settlement award first to cover costs before applying the percentage split. This is commonly referred to as “taking costs off the top” and can make a huge difference in how money is allocated when a wrongful death lawsuit is over.

For example, say a spouse and lawyer agree to attorney compensation equal to 30 percent of any money awarded, plus reimbursement off the top for costs incurred in handling the lawsuit (such as filing fees, expert fees, deposition expenses, and copying and mailing costs). If the spouse wins $1,000,000 in damages at trial, but the related costs and expenses total $250,000, that leaves $750,000 after reimbursement to be split 70/30 between the spouse and the attorney, with the spouse getting $525,000 and the attorney getting $225,000.

Wrongful death damages can be quite substantial, so it’s imperative that you get legal help as you go through the process of filing a wrongful death lawsuit. It’s equally important to make sure there is a clear understanding of exactly how much an attorney will be paid for handling the wrongful death lawsuit and how costs will be reimbursed.

If you want to know how to fight a wrongful death lawsuit, how to win a wrongful death lawsuit or if you have any other questions to ask a wrongful death attorney, click here.

And remember, you can enter your ZIP code below to find wrongful death attorneys in your area.

References:

  1. https://www.cga.ct.gov/2003/rpt/2003-R-0794.htm
  2. https://www.bettergov.org/news/illinois-public-hospitals-pay-180-million-for-wrongful-death-cases/
  3. https://www.transportation.gov/office-policy/transportation-policy/revised-departmental-guidance-on-valuation-of-a-statistical-life-in-economic-analysis
  4. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-value-of-life/
  5. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/punitive_damages