Naya Rivera’s former husband, Ryan Dorsey, recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of their five-year-old son.  The thirty-three year old actress and singer died earlier this year after she rented a pontoon boat on Lake Piru in California.  Dorsey’s legal action claims that Rivera drowned because the pontoon boat did not have the proper safety equipment and there were no signs warning of the dangerous lake conditions.   

The action Dorsey filed concerns a wrongful death claim.  Each state individually defines and handles wrongful death claims differently.  So, how would North Carolina handle such a case?

North Carolina Wrongful Death Law

North Carolina Statute §28A-18-2 provides that when another person’s wrongful act, failure, or neglect causes another individual’s death, the individual’s personal representatives may file a civil action against the wrongdoer as if the individual had lived.  In other words, the decedent’s representative files a personal injury lawsuit on their behalf and seeks monetary damages against them.  (The wrongdoer can also be a company or a government, etc.)

A decedent’s representative may file a wrongful death civil action even if the wrongdoer’s actions meet the state’s felony criminal classification and the state has already filed a criminal case against the wrongdoers.  Both cases can proceed simultaneously.

If the decedent had a will or estate plan, they may have already designated an executor or executrix, who may agree to serve as their representative in a wrongful death claim.  If that individual cannot or is unwilling to act as the personal representative, the individual’s surviving, spouse, child, surviving spouse or other relative may also serve as their personal representative. 

Wrongful Death Damages

A wrongful death claim may seek the following losses or damages: 

  • medical costs
  • funeral costs   
  • the monetary value of the decedent’s income
  • the monetary value of the decedent’s security and protection
  • the monetary value of the decedent’s services, support, and care
  • the monetary value of the decedent’s friendship, solace, and guidance

A wrongful death action may additionally seek punitive damages, which are meant to punish the wrongdoer and discourage like future conduct.   A wrongful death claim can only seek such damages if it can show that the wrongdoer caused the decedent’s death in at least one of the following manners: 

  • wanton or willful conduct:   this occurs when a person acts with the deliberate disdain and irrelevance of another individual’s rights and well-being and should know or should have known that their conduct would likely cause loss, injury, or other harm. 
  • malice:  this occurs when a person’s unique sense of animosity toward another individual causes them to harm that individual. 

Who Receives Damages?

North Carolina Statute §28A-18-2 also sets forth amounts recovered in wrongful death claim are to be paid.  Subsequent to quantified payments of medical expenses and burial costs related to the incident causing the individual’s death and attorney’s fees, the Intestate Succession Act then determines how monies will be distributed.  Each family is different and the act accounts for multiple variations and also mentions quantified payments.  Basically, however, monies are first allocated to surviving spouses, children, and parents, then other descendants. 

Wrongful death claims must be filed within two years of the deceased individual’s death.  As well, other legal doctrines apply.  If another person’s wrongful act, failure, or neglect caused the death of someone about who you care and/or you believe you may be able to bring about a wrongful death claim, you should talk to an experienced, knowledgeable wrongful death attorney.  Thomas D. Bumgardner knows the applicable wrongful death laws and can help you determine your best course of action.  Contact him at 704-887-4981 or email him info@ballantynelegal.com.  Learn about the legal services he provides and book an appointment.