Losing a loved one in a tragic accident is an experience that no family should have to face. However, thousands of families across Illinois face this very reality. In the wake of a tragic accident, there is undoubtedly a lot on your plate. Along with the tremendous grief, there are also financial repercussions that come along with losing a loved one. A wrongful death claim is a way for grieving families to recover meaningful compensation that can help them overcome some of the financial difficulties brought about by their loss. However, the thought of filing a wrongful death claim can be overwhelming. If you’ve lost a loved one but don’t know where to start in the wrongful death process, the below steps outline the stages of a wrongful death lawsuit, from the initial consultation with an attorney all the way through the final resolution of your case.
Scheduling a Consultation with a Wrongful Death Lawyer
The first step in the recovery process is scheduling a consultation with a wrongful death attorney to discuss your case. This will give you an opportunity to ask any questions you have about the process. The attorney will also listen to what happened, review any documents you brought in, and provide you with an honest assessment of your case in their eyes. Most Chicago wrongful death lawyers offer free consultations to all prospective clients, so you shouldn’t need to pay a dime to speak with a lawyer.
Selecting the Right Attorney
There are many wrongful death attorneys out there, some better than others. When you are looking for a Chicago wrongful death lawyer, be sure to interview several attorneys. This will allow you to get to know the lawyer who would be handling your case. Given the magnitude of your loss, these cases are very high stakes. Thus, you should take ample time interviewing lawyers. A few questions you may want to ask a wrongful death attorney include:
- How many years of experience do you have handling wrongful death cases?
- What is your track record for wrongful death lawsuits?
- Are you available to answer my questions by phone or email?
- Will you be handling my case, or will it be handed off to a junior associate?
- Do you handle any other types of unrelated cases that may take your attention away from wrongful death claims?
You also want to make sure that you get along well with the lawyer you select to handle your case. Wrongful death cases can take months or even years to resolve, and you don’t want personality differences to interfere with your relationship with your attorney.
Hiring a Wrongful Death Lawyer and Understanding How They Are Paid
One thing to keep in mind when considering a wrongful death claim is how lawyers are paid. Most wrongful death attorneys take cases on a contingency basis, meaning they only get paid if you do. If your case ends in a settlement or a jury verdict, you will pay a certain percentage of the total damages award to your attorney. However, if your case is not successful, you will pay nothing. This essentially eliminates any financial risk in bringing a claim. However, this does not mean that you should rush into a lawsuit with an attorney you do not trust because you only get one chance to file a wrongful death claim.
The Attorney Investigates Your Case
Once you identify the lawyer you want to handle your case, the next step is for the attorney to conduct an in-depth investigation into the accident that claimed your loved one’s life. Of course, an investigation will vary depending on the nature of the accident. However, typically, an attorney will review all accident reports, medical records, witness statements and other evidence to determine a theory of the case. This is essentially a strategy your attorney will use to prove that the other party was legally responsible for your loved one’s death. Your wrongful death attorney will also ask you important questions about your family member, their income, and the other services they provided to accurately assess the possible damages that you may receive if the case is successful.
Negotiation with the Insurance Company
Usually, before your attorney files a case in court, they will reach out to the insurance company to see if they can settle the case without the need for a trial. To do so, your lawyer may write up a demand letter, outlining the incident and the damages you expect to receive, citing legal authorities for any arguments. The insurance company will review the letter and respond, either with a counteroffer or, less commonly, an outright rejection. It is then up to your lawyer to negotiate with the insurance company, trying to get them to increase their offer such that it fairly compensates you and your family for your loss.
Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
If an insurance company is not willing to make a fair settlement offer, your attorney will draft and file a complaint. A complaint is a legal document that formally initiates a lawsuit. Once the complaint is filed in the appropriate court, the defendant must file a response. The defendant can admit or deny each allegation individually. So, while the defendant may admit certain things, it will usually deny the main allegations of negligence.
Once your attorney files a complaint, the defendant or defendants then file a response. From there, the case enters the discovery phase, where both sides exchange information and evidence that may be relevant to the trial. This includes physical evidence, accident reports, medical records, depositions and interrogatories. You may be deposed by the other side, meaning you must sit down and answer questions under oath. Your attorney will be present and will prepare you for the questioning. Your attorney will also depose other witnesses, including witnesses, experts, or the defendant. The discovery phase is a critical part of the process, as it often exposes additional facts that can make your case easier—or harder—to prove.
Mediation is a way to resolve a case without going to trial. Either party can request mediation. The mediation process involves you, your attorney, the defendant and their attorney sitting down with a neutral mediator. The mediator will hear each side’s case and then try to work through a solution. The mediator may point out weaknesses of each parties’ case, trying to get each side to come towards the middle. If the mediation process results in an agreement, that’s great. However, you are not bound to accept the mediator’s proposal.
Going to Trial
If a wrongful death case cannot be resolved through a pre-trial settlement or mediation, the final step is for the case to go to trial, usually in front of a jury. During the trial, each side presents its case to the jury. While every trial is different, this typically involves the following stages:
- Jury selection
- Opening statements
- Witness testimony
- Closing arguments
- Jury instruction
- Jury deliberation
Any witness who testifies is subject to cross-examination by the other side’s attorney. This is critical, as your attorney may be able to expose weaknesses in witnesses’ or experts’ testimony. At the same time, if you testify, you will also be subject to cross-examination. However, your attorney can provide you with effective strategies that will help you keep your cool and effectively convey all the necessary information.
Sometimes, the jury’s verdict does not mark the end of the case. For example, if the jury finds in your favor, the defendant may have a post-trial motion to reduce the damages award or may file an appeal. An appeal may be based on any decision the judge made during the trial. For example, the defendant may argue that certain evidence should have been admitted or that a particular line of questioning should not have been permitted. At the same time, if the jury found in favor of the defendant, your attorney can file an appeal to a higher court. If your appeal is successful, the appellate court may award you a new trial. This is typically the only time you will get a “second bite of the apple” in a wrongful death case.
Few cases are as high stakes as a wrongful death lawsuit. You and your family have been through so much, and it is imperative that your case is handled professionally from beginning to end. Remember, you have only one chance to file a wrongful death lawsuit, and having the right attorney on your side can mean the difference between winning and losing your case.