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June 11, 2024 Feature

A Decade of Changes to Wrongful Death Statutes across the United States

Patrice C. S. Melville and Ashley M. Cuneo
If an amendment to your state’s wrongful death statute will be applied retroactively, inform your client of the possible implications ahead of time.

If an amendment to your state’s wrongful death statute will be applied retroactively, inform your client of the possible implications ahead of time.

Getty Images/Moment/Boris Zhitkov

While the void of losing a loved one can never truly be filled, state legislatures have, since the mid-19th century, allowed surviving family members to file suit against those believed to be legally responsible for their loss. With New York leading the charge, these initial wrongful death statutes were typically only available to the wives and next of kin of deceased men. In addition to the limitations on who could bring suit, damages were also limited to the loss of financial support that followed. In those days, women rarely worked outside of the home, and the law specifically defined “marriage” as the union of one man and one woman.

The family dynamic of men working outside of the home and women staying home to raise children shifted during World War I. As men went off to fight in the war, many women entered the workforce, earning more independence and freedom. This created a new class of working women who now shared the role of “breadwinner.” With this newfound financial independence, some women no longer felt compelled to stay in unhappy marriages for security. As a result, divorce rates began to increase. Before World War I, the rate of divorce was 0.3 divorces per 1,000 Americans. By the 1920s, the divorce rate rose to 1.7 divorces for every 1,000 Americans. With an increase in the number of divorces came single-parent households and blended families. Soon, there were stepfamilies, adoptive families, and children being raised by extended family members. The decriminalization of homosexuality further expanded family structures to include domestic partnerships, same-sex marriages, and same-sex parent households. This list is not exhaustive.

While each state has some sort of statutory framework that spells out who has standing to commence a wrongful death suit, the statute of limitations, and the remedies available, the prevalence of women entering the workforce and the evolution of the nuclear family structure have led to various changes to the original wrongful death statutes. This article discusses the trend over the last 10 years toward legislative expansion of the wrongful death statutes across the United States.

New York’s Wrongful Death Statute

New York was the first state to enact a wrongful death statute. (However, within a few years, each state enacted its own.) The first wrongful death statute enacted in New York was rather limited in scope and has evolved moderately over time.

Lord Campbell’s Act. New York has never recognized a common-law right to recover damages for the wrongful death of an individual. During the Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, however, the tide turned in terms of recognizing a statutory right to recover damages for wrongful death.

With the Industrial Revolution in England and the United States came the growth of the steam railway system, which led to a massive spike in the number of deaths. To assuage the public outcry of bereaved families desperate for financial assistance, the English Parliament enacted Lord Campbell’s Act, also known as the Fatal Accident Act, in 1846. This new revolutionary act served as a predicate for the wrongful death statutes in America today.

New York was the first to follow England’s lead, enacting a new statute modeled after Lord Campbell’s Act. The 1847 New York wrongful death statute provided as follows:

  1. Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect or default, and the act, neglect or default, is such as would (if death had not ensued) have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages, in respect thereof, then and in every such case, the person who, or the corporation which would have been liable, if death had not ensued, shall be liable to an action for damages, notwithstanding the death of the person injured, and although the death shall have been caused under such circumstances as amount in law to felony.
  2. Every such action shall be brought by and in the names of the personal representatives of such deceased person, and the amount recovered in every such action shall be for the exclusive benefit of the widow and next of kin of such deceased person, and shall be distributed to such widow and next of kin in the proportions provided by law in relation to the distribution of personal property, left by persons dying intestate; and in every such action the jury may give such damages as they shall deem fair and just, with reference to the pecuniary injury resulting from such death to the wife and next of kin of such deceased person: provided that every such action shall be commenced [within] two years after the death of such deceased person.


Differences between New York statute and Lord Campbell’s Act. While New York’s wrongful death statute and Lord Campbell’s Act were very similar, there were some key differences. Though Lord Campbell’s Act failed to specifically limit the types of damages that were recoverable, New York’s statute was very clear in its limitation of recoverable damages to those pecuniary in nature. In addition, the New York statute limited those who could benefit to the decedent’s wife and next of kin, whereas Lord Campbell’s Act allowed a surviving husband to benefit. Thus, the New York statute was solely focused on solving the growing problem of widows and children left destitute due to the tragic deaths of husbands and fathers in industrial-related accidents.

Notably, the New York statute failed to provide for circumstances in which a husband lost his wife. A landmark wrongful death case, Green v. Hudson River Railroad Co., decided in 1858, illustrates this issue. In Green, a husband brought an action for the death of his wife, who was a passenger on a railroad train involved in a collision. The court dismissed the husband’s case, reiterating the long-standing rule that “the mere death of a human being cannot be complained of as a civil injury, to be compensated in damages.” Interestingly, the court determined that the husband could have recovered if there were a period of time between the injury and the death such that the husband could be said to have suffered the loss of service and society during that period before death.

Another notable difference between Lord Campbell’s Act and New York’s first wrongful death statute can be seen in the distribution of damages. While Lord Campbell’s Act provided discretion to the jury to award damages “as they may think proportioned to the Injury resulting from such Death to the Parties respectively for whom and for whose Benefit such Action shall be brought,” the New York version provided no such discretion. New York awards could only be distributed to widows and next of kin (children) pursuant to New York’s intestacy laws at the time.

1870 amendment. The New York statute was amended in 1870 to allow husbands to recover. However, statutory inequities in recovery remained.

One such “illustration of the inequity frequently produced by this [intestacy] procedure” can be seen in In re Aronowitz’s Estate. In this case, an 80-year-old widower, who was the co-administrator of his wife’s estate, brought an action for wrongful death. He and his deceased wife both had children from prior marriages. The husband died while the action was still pending, leaving the co-administrator of the estate, an accountant, to prosecute the action. The accountant argued that, pursuant to the intestacy laws, the award recovered should be distributed as follows: one-third to the deceased husband’s estate (which his children from his former marriage would receive in his stead), and one-third to each of his deceased wife’s children from her former marriage. The children of the deceased wife argued that this procedure for distributing recovery in wrongful death actions was unjust and that they should receive the entire sum to the exclusion of the estate of their stepfather. The presiding judge agreed that the distribution procedure for recovery in wrongful death actions was unjust, noting that a fair distribution based on the ages of the husband, the children, and the deceased at the time of her death would entail a one-ninth recovery for the husband. Despite the judge’s disdain for the restrictions laid out by statute, he ultimately ruled in favor of the deceased’s husband, stating that “the remedy for the condition is, however, a legislative, and not a judicial, function.” This case and the long string of cases that highlighted the inequity under the statute led to the 1949 amendment.

1949 amendment. In 1949, due to a recommendation by the New York State Law Revision Commission, the New York wrongful death statute was amended to allow damages to be allocated to the surviving spouse and next of kin in proportion to their respective losses. While it might seem as if the legislature finally got it right and that the judiciary would be less restricted in the allocation of damages, another problem arose: courts were faced with the conundrum of how to calculate the respective losses suffered by wives and next of kin.

The “Kaiser formula” for allocating wrongful death proceeds was then birthed in In re Kaiser. In Kaiser, the presiding surrogate’s court judge applied the proportionality formula that surrogates before him applied pursuant to the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. The length of time that each of the distributees would have looked to the deceased for support was calculated by using actuarial tables in order to determine each distributee’s proportional share. Though the time period of anticipated dependency was cut off at the age of 21 for minor distributees, the court allowed for discretion in those special circumstances where a child would look to a parent for support beyond the age of 21, such as in the case of disabled children. In the cases that followed, courts freely abandoned the Kaiser formula where individual circumstances and equitable considerations warranted such departure.

2003 amendment. Some decades later, the legislature sprang into action following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Following the attacks, the statute was amended to extend the customary two-year statute of limitations for the commencement of wrongful death actions to two years and six months for those actions brought on behalf of a decedent who died as a result of the attacks. This amendment took effect on July 1, 2003.

(The next set of changes would be proposed almost 20 years later in the form of the Grieving Families Act, discussed below.)

Current wrongful death statute. New York’s current wrongful death statute allows a personal representative of the deceased person to bring a suit for damages for negligence, malpractice, and/or intentional torts. Unlike many other states, New York only allows those family members who would normally receive distribution pursuant to the state’s laws governing intestate succession to recover in a wrongful death suit. Extended family members do not have the right to commence or recover damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.

New York wrongful death suits must be filed within two years of the death of the decedent, two and a half years if the death was due to medical malpractice, and one year from the end of the criminal case if the person responsible for the death is being criminally prosecuted.

Recovery in New York is limited to the economic losses suffered by the survivors. These losses include lost wages that the decedent was earning at the time of death; medical costs related to treatment prior to death; associated funeral costs; the economic value of parental guidance, nurturing, and care that was lost following a parent’s death; and loss of services that the deceased provided. Though a deceased’s estate can recover for the deceased’s conscious pain and suffering prior to passing, New York does not allow survivors to recover for noneconomic injuries of their own, such as their own pain and suffering, mental anguish, or loss of companionship resulting from the loss.

Currently, New York is one of just two states that limits wrongful death recovery to purely economic damages. Prior to 1999, New York, Alabama, and Delaware were the last remaining states to limit recovery in wrongful death actions to economic damages. However, Delaware amended its statute in 1999 to include recovery for “[m]ental anguish resulting from such death to the surviving spouse and next-of-kin of such deceased person.” New York and Alabama have persisted.

Alabama appears to be the most restrictive of the 50 states, limiting recovery to only punitive damages. Such damages are not awarded to compensate the plaintiffs but rather to punish the defendants for such egregious actions and deter others from such actions. Despite this limitation, Alabama’s wrongful death act was amended in 1860 to provide considerable discretion to juries, allowing recovery to be determined in an amount that “the jury deem[s] just.” Also in 1860 came a new title to the act: “An Act to Prevent Homicides.” To clear up any unlikely confusion over the legislative intent behind Alabama’s revised wrongful death statute, the Alabama Supreme Court in Savannah & Memphis Railroad Co. v. Shearer concluded that, based on the new title, the legislature’s purpose was punishment of wrongdoers rather than the compensation of survivors. While the statute no longer bears this title, Alabama jurors are still instructed to only consider the defendant’s wrongdoing and to not consider the pecuniary value of the decedent’s life or the need to compensate the decedent’s family.

Although the wrongful death statutes in Alabama and New York both prevent recovery of noneconomic damages, the legislative intent of the two statutes is very different. On the one hand, some might be grateful that New York at least allows for surviving family members to recover some damages—even if limited to economic damages. On the other hand, the stark differences in legislative intent, but similar bar to recovery of noneconomic damages, have been used to support the argument for changes to New York’s statute. The necessity and extent of those changes, however, have been the topic of heated debates across the state.

Grieving Families Act. In 2021, the Grieving Families Act, more formally known as Senate Bill S74A/Assembly Bill A6770, passed both legislative houses and landed on the desk of New York governor Kathy Hochul for signature. Proponents and opponents agreed on at least one thing—that this bill, if signed into law, would drastically change New York’s 175-year-old wrongful death law and the landscape of wrongful death actions across the state.

The bill expanded the pool of potential plaintiffs to “close family members,” without clearly defining who would fall into this category. The language of the bill left that determination up to the fact finder. The bill also expanded the current statute of limitations from two years to three years and six months for most cases. The most significant change, however, was the bill’s expansion of recoverable damages to include noneconomic damages such as grief and “loss of love, society, protection, comfort, companionship, and consortium resulting from the decedent’s death.” The bill, if signed into law, would apply retroactively to all pending wrongful death lawsuits in New York. This retroactive clause would resurrect untimely claims not previously filed within the current two-year statute of limitations.

Hochul, citing concerns over the impact that the expanded class of plaintiffs, retroactivity, and significant expansion of recoverable damages would have on the state’s economy, vetoed the bill on January 30, 2023. In doing so, Hochul stated, “We must fully understand the impacts of potential changes on small businesses, families, doctors and nurses, struggling hospitals in underserved communities, and the overall economy to ensure that undesired consequences don’t overshadow the good we can do for grieving families.” The governor did indicate, however, that she would support a more limited version of the bill with no retroactivity clause, an exclusion for medical malpractice claims, and a limitation on the recovery of noneconomic damages to only those actions brought on behalf of a parent for the loss of a child.

In response to Hochul’s concerns, the bill was reintroduced with revisions on May 2, 2023, as Senate Bill S6636/Assembly Bill A6698. The revised bill limited the term “close family members” to include spouses and domestic partners, issue, foster children, stepchildren, parents and stepparents, grandparents and step-grandparents, siblings, and any person standing in loco parentis to the decedent—still vesting the fact finder with the discretion to determine who is entitled to damages as a “close” family member. Second, the revised version proposed a three-year statute of limitations rather than the initial three years and six months. Lastly, the revised version limited the application of the proposed retroactivity clause to those causes of action that arose on or after July 1, 2018. The revised bill did not include a limitation on the recovery of noneconomic damages, though many believed such recovery to be the most significant proposed expansion of the statute. The revised bill also failed to include an exclusion for medical malpractice claims.

Under both versions of the bill, compensation for the following damages would be permitted:

(i) reasonable funeral expenses of the decedent paid by the persons for whose benefit the action is brought, or for the payment of which any persons for whose benefit the action is brought is responsible; (ii) reasonable expenses for medical care incident to the injury causing death, including but not limited to doctors, nursing, attendant care, treatment, hospitalization of the decedent, and medicines; (iii) grief or anguish caused by the decedent’s death; (iv) loss of love, society, protection, comfort, companionship, and consortium resulting from the decedent’s death; (v) pecuniary injuries, including loss of services, support, assistance, and loss or diminishment of inheritance, resulting from the decedent’s death; and (vi) loss of nurture, guidance, counsel, advice, training, and education resulting from the decedent’s death.

Despite the revisions to the bill, Hochul vetoed the revised bill on December 29, 2023, the same day that it was delivered on her desk. This indicates that the revisions failed to adequately address the governor’s concerns about the burden and increased costs on families, small businesses, and New York’s health-care industry.

Since the introduction of the original bill, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the potential effect that the bill would have on New Yorkers, the court system, the economy, and various business industries. The arguments for and against the changes proposed by this bill are plentiful.

Opponents of the bill argue that the proposed changes would have a “disastrous impact on businesses in the state, endangering our economic recovery in these uncertain times.” One such “disastrous impact” is the increase in insurance premiums to account for the increase in recoverable damages. The president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, Dr. Parag Mehta, argues that medical malpractice insurance will increase by nearly 40% for New York physicians, who already pay among the highest in liability premiums in the country. In addition to an increase in medical liability premiums, opponents claim that individuals and businesses would see a $2.14 billion, or 11.1%, increase in automobile liability and general liability annual premiums. Peter Baynes, New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials executive director, argues that “the approach taken will be devastating for municipal budgets and the services they support.”

On the other hand, proponents of the proposed changes say that “by providing financial relief only based upon income/earnings, the current statute results in discriminate results for underprivileged individuals and those with non-traditional family structures.” Proponents argue that the proposed changes would allow nonfinancial contributions to be considered when assessing the value of a person’s life and survivors’ grief and suffering. The bill, proponents argue, addresses the failure of New York’s current law to recognize the many shapes that families take and, particularly, “loss of step-family, people being raised by or raising other family members, or even nuclear family members depending on marital and child status.”

While there have been discussions among state legislators about ways in which to override Hochul’s veto, there has not yet been any action in furtherance of this goal. Only time will tell.

Expanded Standing

Today, each of the 50 states has a wrongful death statute in one form or another. While many states still only grant a personal representative, administrator, or executor of an estate the right to sue for wrongful death, a few states have amended their statutes either to give additional parties the right to sue or to illustrate that an individual right to sue exists.

California. In 2020, California amended its statute to allow the legal guardian of a deceased child to file suit for the child’s death if the deceased child’s parents, also deceased, would have been able to recover if they were alive. Prior to this amendment, a person who was not a natural parent had no right to sue for an unadopted child’s wrongful death, even if an adoption process was in progress.

Mississippi. Prior to 2018, Mississippi permitted a lawsuit for wrongful death to be brought by a personal representative for the benefit of all persons entitled to recover under the law. Additionally, a spouse could file suit for the death of their spouse; a parent for the death of a child or unborn quick child; a child for the death of a parent; and a sibling for the death of another sibling. In 2018, Mississippi amended its statute to clarify that a spouse, child, parent, sibling, or interested party may file suit in their individual capacity outside of their deceased loved one’s estate.

However, there is a caveat. There can only be one suit for the same death. If a personal representative or administrator of the estate has already commenced a wrongful death action, the deceased’s family members will be precluded from filing suit on their own against the same responsible parties. Likewise, a personal representative or administrator of an estate will be precluded from bringing suit if a family member files first.

Tennessee. In 2021, Tennessee amended its wrongful death statute to allow immediate relatives to bring their own lawsuit. However, Tennessee took the extra step of setting forth an order of priority. The right to file suit is first vested with the deceased’s spouse. The children or next of kin may file suit if the deceased dies with no spouse or their spouse is found to have abandoned the deceased at least two years prior to the deceased’s death. Tennessee case law defines “next of kin” to mean “next or nearest in blood” as a matter of genealogy and without reference to any statute of descent and distribution.

A New Class of Decedents

Other states have proposed and enacted amendments to their wrongful death statutes to expand for whom a wrongful death action can be filed.

Arkansas. In 2023, a legislative bill was introduced to change the definition of “fetus” to include the time from fertilization to birth and to restrict the exception allowed for medical abortions to abortions performed by a medical professional “to avert the death of the pregnant woman . . . [w]hen all reasonable alternatives to save the life of the unborn child are unavailable or were attempted unsuccessfully before the performance of the medical procedure.” The bill died at a House committee meeting on May 1, 2023.

Delaware. In 2023, Delaware amended its wrongful death statute to revise the definition of “child” to include any natural born child or adopted child. The definition of “parent” was also amended to include an adopted mother and father.

Kansas. In 2013, Kansas amended the definition of “person” to include an unborn child. The term “unborn child” was amended as “a living individual organism of the species homo sapiens, in utero, at any stage of gestation from fertilization to birth,” allowing an heir of a deceased fetus to recover for the loss of the fetus.

Expansions on Who Can Recover

In the past 10 years, to account for recognized nontraditional family structures, several states have expanded the list of who can recover in a wrongful death action. In these states, nontraditional familial relationships and family structures, which include domestic partnerships, adoptive parents and children, and grandparent-led households, are no longer a barrier to recovery.

Louisiana. Prior to its 2022 amendment, Louisiana’s wrongful death statute already provided a comprehensive list of who could recover damages. Priority was given to a spouse or child. If there was no surviving spouse or child, priority was then given to the parents of the deceased. If none of the above family members survived, then a sibling could file. If there were no surviving siblings, then the right passed to the deceased’s grandparents.

The 2022 amendment to the Louisiana wrongful death statute expanded the class of who could recover to adoptive parents, adopted children, adopted siblings, and adoptive grandparents. However, the priority of recovery remains in effect.

Oklahoma. Prior to 2020, Oklahoma’s wrongful death statute stated that a spouse, child, or “next of kin” could recover for the mental pain and anguish suffered by the decedent, pecuniary loss to said survivors, and, where applicable, punitive and/or exemplary damages for the decedent’s death.

In 2020, the statute was amended to include parents and grandparents in the definition of “next of kin.” The statute was also amended to allow a parent or grandparent of a deceased person to maintain an action against the physician who caused the death of an unborn person under the conditions provided by the statute. A parent or grandparent of the unborn person cannot recover if the parent or grandparent coerced the mother of the unborn person into having the abortion.

Washington. Prior to 2019, Washington had two tiers of beneficiaries who could recover damages in a wrongful death suit, with those in the first tier having priority of filing. The first tier included a wife or husband, a state-registered domestic partner, and children. The second tier included parents, sisters, and brothers who were financially dependent on the deceased for support and lived in the United States at the time of their child’s or sibling’s death.

In 2019, Washington replaced the words “wife” and “husband” with “spouse.” The state also removed the distinction regarding parents, sisters, and brothers; now, a parent or sibling may recover without having to prove that they depended on the deceased for support and lived in the United States at the time of their child’s or sibling’s death.

Expansions to Recoverable Damages

Expansions in the types of recoverable damages in wrongful death actions have been the most impactful and controversial of all the changes. Since the inception of the initial wrongful death statutes, more and more states have expanded recoverable damages beyond just economic damages. Economic damages represent actual, measurable loss (i.e., loss of earnings, medical expenses, etc.)—that is, the financial impact of losing a loved one who provided in life. Now, all but two states (Alabama and New York) allow surviving family members to recover for the less tangible and subjective class of damages that includes mental anguish, grief, and loss of companionship. A few states have even expanded recovery to include punitive damages in certain circumstances to punish a wrongdoer for particularly egregious or exceptionally harmful conduct. Others have increased the limits of their damages cap, and still others have eliminated the caps altogether.

California. Prior to the 2022 amendment to California’s wrongful death statute, a deceased’s estate could not recover for noneconomic damages suffered by the deceased before death. In 2022, the statute was amended to permit the decedent’s estate to recover for noneconomic damages to which the deceased would be entitled, such as pain, suffering, or disfigurement.

Delaware. Prior to 2023, Delaware’s wrongful death statute only allowed an estate to recover economic and noneconomic damages. In 2023, Delaware amended its statute to also permit punitive damages in cases where the death was maliciously intended or caused by reckless, willful, or wanton misconduct. Punitive damages are awarded by the trier of fact in a separate finding.

Illinois. Under Illinois law prior to 2023, a wrongful death cause of action was for the benefit of the surviving spouse and next of kin. Beneficiaries were able to seek economic damages and noneconomic damages such as grief, sorrow, and mental suffering. However, there was no statutory right to recover punitive damages. In 2023, Illinois amended its statute to permit beneficiaries to recover punitive damages “when applicable.” The revised statute goes on to preclude punitive damages in medical malpractice, legal malpractice, and actions against the state.

Maine. In 2023, Maine amended its wrongful death statute to increase the cap on noneconomic damages such as loss of comfort, society, and companionship and emotional distress. The cap on punitive damages was also increased. Previously, Maine’s wrongful death statute provided that an heir could recover up to $750,000 for loss of comfort, society, and companionship and emotional distress. That figure was increased to $1,000,000, which can be adjusted for inflation (cost-of-living adjustment of certain dollar amounts). The statute also increased the amount of punitive damages that a jury can award from $250,000 to $500,000.

Minnesota. In 2023, Minnesota expanded the scope of the potential recovery for wrongful death actions. Its wrongful death statute was amended to permit the recovery of “all damages suffered by the decedent resulting from the injury prior to the decedent’s death,” in addition to the pecuniary loss resulting from the death, as was always allowed. This change allows surviving family members to recover for the decedent’s premortem pain and suffering.

The legislative history related to this amendment indicates the desire for increased accountability for nursing homes in which elder abuse and neglect results in the death of nursing home residents. However, the expansion is not limited to wrongful death actions involving claims of nursing home abuse and neglect. The amendment applies to all wrongful death actions within the state.

Rhode Island. Rhode Island has made two significant changes to its wrongful death statute. The first change, made in 2021, expanded the types of damages. The second change, effective in 2024, addresses the minimum amount of recoverable damages. Before the first major change in 2021, surviving family members could recover only for loss of consortium, loss of parental society and companionship, and loss of a child’s society and companionship; in 2021, the state amended its statute to allow surviving family members to recover also for emotional distress, grief, and loss of enjoyment of life as a result of their loved one’s death. Effective in 2024, the revised statute increases the minimum amount of recoverable damages in a wrongful death suit from $250,000 to $350,000.

Washington. Prior to 2019, Washington’s wrongful death statute permitted a decedent’s beneficiary to recover “damages,” but the statute did not specify the types of damages that were recoverable. In 2019, Washington amended the wrongful death statute to set forth the types of recoverable damages. However, the revised statute clarifies that noneconomic damages are limited to the pain and suffering, anxiety, emotional distress, or humiliation personal to and suffered by the deceased—not the surviving family members. Nevertheless, there is no cap on damages, with the trier of fact left with the discretion of awarding what is “just under all the circumstances of the case.”

Interesting Outlier: Florida Permits Recovery by Creditors

In addition to expanding the class of persons with standing to commence an action, who can recover, and the types and extent of recoverable damages, one state’s expansion considers other interests. In Florida, damages recovered in a wrongful death suit by the decedent’s estate are subject to the claims of creditors who have complied with the requirements of the state’s probate laws concerning such claims. The statute specifically addresses the order in which payments to creditors of the estate must be distributed.

Case law, however, demonstrates that although creditors may recover from a decedent’s estate in wrongful death actions, recovery is not always guaranteed. Ultimately, if there are several survivors of an estate and creditors, a method of apportionment that is “reasonable and equitable under the circumstances” may not always provide for creditor relief.

While Florida is the only state to allow creditors to recover from a wrongful death suit, other states could follow suit in the future.


The law reflects a society’s values, systems, and beliefs. One social system, the family unit, has changed vastly since the creation of the initial wrongful death statutes.

The expansions of wrongful death statutes in the past 10 years reflect the acceptance of these new family structures. Most states have expanded the class of family members permitted to commence a wrongful death suit. They have also expanded the class of familial beneficiaries to include domestic partners, children, grandparents, siblings, stepparents, and adoptive family members. Even the types of damages and the amount recoverable have expanded to consider the noneconomic injuries suffered when a person loses a loved one.

While many factors have led to these expansions, the trend over the past 10 years suggests further expansion in the future. The effect that these changes will have on individuals, businesses, the court systems, and the economy, however, remains to be seen.

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    Patrice C. S. Melville

    Hurwitz Fine P.C.

    Patrice C. S. Melville is an associate at Hurwitz Fine P.C., where she focuses her practice on the defense of businesses and individuals in a wide array of litigated matters.

    Ashley M. Cuneo

    Hurwitz Fine P.C.

    Ashley M. Cuneo is a litigation associate at Hurwitz Fine P.C., focusing her practice on general liability defense, including medical malpractice, and nursing home neglect.