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What is a wrongful death action in Virginia?

Even a casual consumer of local news knows that accidental deaths are frequent occurrences in Northern Virginia. Such incidents frequently produce lawsuits by the decedent's family to recover damages from the party who is at fault. A common question about such suits is why does the family of someone who dies in a car accident or some other mishap have the right to sue someone else? The answer is provided by Virginia statute.

Under the common law, the death of an accident victim terminated the right of the decedent and their family to commence a lawsuit for damages. The unfairness of this rule prompted the Virginia legislature and the legislatures of the other forty-nine states to pass laws permitting such lawsuits. The Virginia statute is entitled "Action for death by wrongful act." The rule is straightforward: "Whenever the death of a person shall be caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default," the personal representative of the decedent may bring an action for damages against any party whose "wrongful act" caused the death.

The term "wrongful death" can be confusing. The word "wrongful" means only that the death was caused by the breach of a civil duty of one person to another. The act must be negligent, i.e., a failure to use reasonable care, but it need not be criminal. Damages in a wrongful death action are different from damages in cases where the plaintiff is alive. The family can recover for loss due to sorrow, mental anguish and loss of companionship, loss of the decedent's anticipated income, reasonable funeral expenses and medical expenses in connection with the injuries that resulted in death.

Anyone who has lost a loved one in an accident of any kind may wish to consult a lawyer who handles wrongful death cases. A knowledgeable attorney can provide a helpful analysis of the law that governs the case and an estimate of the likelihood of recovering damages.

Source: FindLaw, "Virginia Wrongful Death Laws," accessed on Aug. 4, 2017

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