Guide to Missouri Wrongful Death Actions
In Missouri, a civil suit for wrongful death is a statutory action authorized by R.S.Mo. § 537.080, 537.085, and 537.090. The statutes created a new cause of action where none existed at common law. In other words, a wrongful death suit does not revive an underlying tort claim that belonged to the deceased or his/her estate. The purpose of a wrongful death action is to compensate certain survivors of the deceased for his/her support and companionship.
RSMo. 537.080 sets forth who may bring a wrongful death suit. The statute identifies three classes of plaintiffs who have standing to sue. If there is a plaintiff available in the first class, then any potential plaintiff belonging in the second or third class do not have standing. If a member of a higher class refuses or simply fails to bring a wrongful death suit, then the lower class members are not authorized. If there are multiple members of a class with standing to sue and only one member brings sues, the remaining members may intervene to become parties to the suit. RSMo. 537.080.1 requires that a sole member bringing suit must make a diligent effort to notify other potentially authorized plaintiffs. The degree of relationship between a certain plaintiff and the deceased determines what share of damages that plaintiff will receive.
Under RSMo. 537.080, the class with first priority to sue includes the deceased’s spouse, children, surviving lineal descendants of any deceased children, and the deceased’s parents. The second class, who have standing to sue if there are no available members of the first class, includes the deceased’s siblings and their descendants. The third and final class, who can only bring suit if there are no members of the first two classes, is made of a plaintiff ad litem. A plaintiff ad litem is court appointed and authorized to sue at the request of heirs of the deceased. The personal representative of the deceased’s estate has standing only if he/she is designated as the plaintiff ad litem.
A wrongful death action requires that the deceased would have been able to sue for damages for the injuries sustained had he/she survived. Accordingly, a plaintiff must prove the elements of the underlying tort claim, in addition to causation of death and recovery of damages specified in RSMo. 537.090. A wrongful death suit can arise from many circumstances, including from an automobile accident, premises liability, medical malpractice, products liability, battery, or false imprisonment. Any person whose conduct caused or contributed to cause the deceased’s death can be named as a defendant. Keep in mind that under RSMo. 537.085, defendants may plead any of the defenses available to him/her that are applicable to the underlying tort claim.
The damages available for a successful wrongful death suit are set forth in RSMo. 537.090. The damages include pecuniary losses suffered by reason of death, funeral expenses, damages suffered by the deceased between the time of injury and death, and the reasonable value of the deceased’s consortium, services, companionship, comfort, instruction, guidance, counsel, training, and support. Damages for grief and bereavement are expressly prohibited by RSMo. 537.090.
In the aftermath of the death of a loved one, the wrongful death laws may seem overwhelming. If you have questions or need guidance, give us a call at Bley & Evans Trial Attorneys at (844) 443-8385.