In the very unfortunate situation where a person is killed by the wrongful act of another person or a corporation in Alabama, the heirs may make claims under the Alabama Wrongful Death Act. Claims for wrongful death can be based on negligence or statutes such as the Alabama Extended Manufacturers Liability Doctrine (products liability) and the Alabama Medical Liability Act (medical malpractice). A complaint about wrongful death must be filed within two years from the date of death.
The Wrongful Death Act (§ 6-5-410, Ala. Code) specifies that the personal representative has the authority to commence an action on behalf of the heirs. The personal representative (sometimes referred to as the Administrator of the estate) is typically designated in a Last Will and Testament. If there is not a will, then Alabama Code § 43-2-42 provides that the deceased person’s spouse has the first priority to be appointed as personal representative. The heirs will be next in line for priority to serve as personal representatives. The spouse or the heirs waive their priority to serve as personal representative if they do not file a petition within forty days of the decedent’s death. In counties with over 400,000 residents, the county administrator can be appointed if the spouse and heirs decline appointment or are unable to serve. Otherwise, any person may petition to be the personal representative. All the heirs of the decedent must receive notice of the petition for appointment of a personal representative and will have the right to object to a petition if they so choose.
The Provision of Equal Right to File
In the case of a death of a minor child, Alabama Code § 6-5-390 provides that the parents of the child shall have an equal right to file a wrongful death action so long as they are lawfully living together as husband and wife. In the event the parents are not married or divorced, the person with legal custody of the minor child at the time of death shall have the right to commence a wrongful death action. If the father and mother are both deceased or if they do not file an action within six months from the death of the minor, then any properly appointed personal representative of the minor may file the claim.
Alabama’s wrongful death law is different than in every other state, because only punitive damages may be recovered for wrongful death in Alabama. These damages are not designed to compensate the heirs for the loss of their loved one or to replace the income that the deceased person would have earned for their family. Instead, punitive damages are awarded to preserve human life, to punish wrongful conduct, and to deter or discourage the wrongdoer and others from doing the same or similar wrongs in the future. Alabama Pattern Jury Instruction 11.28
When a jury is asked to determine the amount of a judgment in a wrongful death case in Alabama, they are instructed that the amount of damages must be directly related to the severity of the wrongdoer’s bad conduct. The jury is also told they may not consider the monetary value of the deceased person’s life because the damages are not to compensate the heirs from a monetary standpoint for the death.
In the case of either a deceased adult or minor, it is important to recognize that the personal representative does not necessarily receive any of the proceeds from a wrongful death claim. When there is a recovery from a settlement or a judgment in a wrongful death claim in Alabama, the proceeds are distributed to the heirs according to the rules of intestate succession. These are the rules that control the disbursement of an estate in the event a person dies without a valid Last Will and Testament. Typically, the rules of disbursement will provide that the surviving spouse and any children will share in the recovery. In the case of a death of a minor child, the parents will typically share the recovery equally. The damages recovered are not part of the estate and are not subject to the payment of the debts or liabilities of the decedent. Alabama Code, § 6-5-410.
About Timberlake & League
If you have recently suffered the loss of a loved one as a result of another’s wrongful acts or omissions, the attorneys of Timberlake & League, P.C., are here to assist you. Our experience and success with wrongful death lawsuits allows us to provide compassionate and dedicated legal assistance. We understand that it can be difficult to consider the prospect of a legal battle after a traumatic event, but our qualified attorneys will work to help you successfully navigate this process. Call (256) 536-0770 or (800) 804-2502 for a free confidential consultation or contact us online.