It depends on the case and what is right given the facts and what the family requires.
Let us explain.
How Long Does It Take To Settle Wrongful Death Claims? (EXPLAINED)
The contents of this web page are for informational purposes only, and nothing you read is intended to be legal advice. Please review our disclaimer about law/legal-related information on this website before taking action based upon anything you read or see.
How Does The Wrongful Death Lawsuit Settlement Process Work?
Wrongful death cases are highly individual and specific.
Thus it is really difficult to say that a case, regardless of where it is located, will settle in a particular way.
Here is generally how a wrongful death case settlement proceeds:
- Bad act that leads to the death of a loved one occurs.
- Family grieves, but knowing about the bad act, is upset and starts calling around to attorneys to see what can be done.
- Now on board, attorney notifies the potential defendant(s) of involvement.
- Defendant(s) forward plaintiff’s attorney’s notice to their insurance company (if there is one).
- Insurance company forwards plaintiff’s attorney’s notice to their own attorney (insurance defense counsel).
- Plaintiff’s attorney and insurance defense counsel have a phone call to talk about the case.
- Plaintiff’s attorney also sends notice to the decedent’s insurance company (if decedent had insurance, like in a car accident) in the event that there is a claim/damages that could be covered by the decedent’s under-insured motorists coverage/personal injury protection/funeral/death benefits.
- Decedent’s insurance forwards the notice to their own attorney (insurance defense counsel).
- Decedent’s insurance defense counsel have a phone call to talk about the case.
- Plaintiff sends appropriate tort claim notices to any public or government agencies requiring notice within a short period of time to preserve later claims in the event investigation produces evidence supporting one.
- Plaintiff’s attorney begins developing factual basis for a settlement demand (police reports, witness statements, physical evidence) to support the claim for wrongful death and also for the amount of damages sought.
- The family may assist in this information gathering, helping gather financial documentation, putting together statements about the quality of life of the decedent, providing photos or videos of the decedent.
- Plaintiff’s attorney (maybe with the assistance of expert witnesses) confirms that the evidence supports a claim for wrongful death, and also an amount of damages that could be proven at a trial.
- In the meantime, insurance defense lawyers also perform their own investigation, to build and preserve evidence that would contradict, disprove, or weaken plaintiff’s claims.
- Plaintiff’s attorney talks to clients amount that amount, and whether a case should be filed against the defendants, or a demand for pre-trial settlement be made.
- If clients choose to demand a settlement, the attorney prepares the settlement demand (usually for the limits of the available policies), and then tenders it to the insurance defense lawyer(s). The settlement demand usually includes copies of relevant reports, photographs, witness statements, or even expert witness conclusions.
- Upon receipt of the settlement demand, the insurance defense lawyers confer with their client(s), and review the factual evidence provided. They’ll compare it to the information they have collected.
- The insurance defense lawyers will either agree to the demand, or counter for a lesser amount.
- The parties will have the opportunity to negotiate the case to a resolution, or not. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the plaintiff will have to make the decision to accept a settlement offer they don’t really like, or push the case to trial.
Does The Wrongful Death Settlement Process Have To Take A Long Time?
No, the settlement process doesn’t have to take a long time.
In some cases, especially when the “bad act” is particularly egregious or obvious, the insurance company or companies will likely be in a hurry to settle the case.
Insurance defense lawyers and cases cost a lot of money.
When the case looks to be open and shut, insurance adjusters will be looking to do whatever they can to reduce the negative impact of the case upon the insurance company or upon the defendant.
Since wrongful death settlements are not public record, and usually include a confidentiality clause (or even a non-disparagement clause), members of the public often don’t realize that a public case has even been resolved/concluded and for how much.
If in the end, it is clear that policy limits will be paid either way, why bother spending a few hundred thousand dollars to try and avoid having to pay policy limits?
Sometimes insurance companies will voluntarily and immediately offer the limits of their policy, without the plaintiff’s lawyer having to do a full investigation or making a demand at all.
Sometimes that offer comes within a few days of the death of the loved one.
But if the case is not clear cut, the insurance company will happily invest in defense lawyers to avoid having to pay out large sums of money associated with the policy.
And those types of cases definitely take longer to get to settlement.
Another way settlements happen quickly is when the insurance company thinks it can win, but to end the case quickly, will offer an amount around what they’d expect to pay for their defense fees.
The wrongful death plaintiff would not likely be satisfied with the amount, but they money in the short term is sometimes welcome and necessary.
Reasons Why It Can Be Good To Take A Long Time To Settle
There are good reasons to settle quickly, such as getting money to the people who need it, justice, closure.
There are also good reasons to be patient about settlement.
Insurance companies will offer tender offers to settle quickly, sometimes before plaintiffs hire lawyers.
Plaintiffs may not realize what their claims are worth.
In the days after an accident or unexpected death, it is difficult to be rational about the actual pain and suffering experienced in both the short term and long term.
How will the death of this loved one truly hurt those left behind?
These pain and suffering claims develop over time.
Another thing that can happen is that medical providers or other costs do not surface until later, though plaintiffs tried hard to get all the bills together.
This would leave those expenses to be paid out from the decedent’s estate, which could dramatically reduce the funds available for the decedent’s heirs (which should have been paid by defendant).
Once the case or claim against a particular defendant has been settlement (and agreements signed), plaintiffs cannot pursue that defendant for any more money.
There’s no re-dos once the documents are done and the money is paid.
Sometimes the amount of money offered by the insurance company is needed desperately, and is very attractive (a bird in the hand).
Plaintiffs may also not realize that getting money from the insurance company is not the only pocket of money to recover from in the case.
In wrongful death cases, the damages incurred may actually exceed the limits of the insurance policy, quite dramatically.
Plaintiffs often don’t realize that it is worthwhile to investigate the financial situation of the defendant (individual or company) to make decisions about pursuing a claim above and beyond the limits of the policy.
A judgment could then be collected against the individual (financial accounts, real estate, investments, etc).
What Happens If The Case Does Not Settle Pre-Filing?
If the insurance defense team rejects the settlement demand, or does not offer to pay an amount that is satisfactory to the plaintiff, then the plaintiff has to make the decision to file the wrongful death claim in court.
The case could still settle at a later date as more information about the case is revealed in discovery (physical evidence, documentation, and wrongful death depositions).
But sometimes an upcoming/looming wrongful death statute of limitations may require that the plaintiff file the case to protect the viability of the claim.
In civil cases, most courts nowadays require that the parties come to the table for a judicial settlement conference.
Or the court has a mechanism for the parties to request one.
A judge unrelated to the case will sit down with the parties and see if the case can be settled, sometimes arguing persuasively one way or another what the facts and risks are in the case to help the parties see more clearly the potential outcomes.
The case might settle then, or proceed to trial.
The case can be settled all the way to judgment, or even beyond.
For example, if the plaintiff receives a favorable judgment, the defendant might dangle defendant’s appeal (which would tangle up the case for years and hold up any payouts to plaintiff) to encourage plaintiff to accept a lesser amount.
This often happens when a judgment for punitive damages in a wrongful death case are ordered, though it can happen with any significant award.
Let’s Say The Parties Agree To A Settlement. Does That Mean Money Will Be Paid Out Soon?
Generally, even if the case settles, it can still take weeks or even months before the plaintiffs receive any money.
In many cases, if a settlement is reached, approval from the judge overseeing the estate case of the decedent will be required.
This could take several weeks.
Once approved, a settlement check has to be requested and mailed/delivered.
When a settlement check is provided to plaintiff’s counsel, plaintiff’s attorney has to deposit the check into the client’s trust account, and then hold off on making any transactions on those funds until the check has cleared.
Some jurisdictions have rules that require the attorney to wait up to 14 days.
After the money has cleared, the attorney will likely pay himself his agreed upon wrongful death attorney fee percentage, as well as for any expenses incurred.
Then, attorney will have to use that money to pay for liens on the settlement amounts, usually from hospitals, medical providers, funeral homes, even the decedent’s own insurance company.
After all, all of these entities or individuals had to pay out as the result of the defendant’s wrongful act, and there are statutes in every state which allow them to recover from settlement funds.
The plaintiff’s attorney will attempt to negotiate these amounts and liens down as far as possible to increase the amount of money paid out to the plaintiff(s) in the end.
Looking For More Information About Wrongful Death Cases?
We are building up a library of articles intended to assist people facing a wrongful death lawsuit from any angle.
The Wrongful Death Article Library is intended to help make your first conversation with a lawyer, prosecutor, defense attorney, insurance adjuster, or other involved party easier.