In a wrongful death case, the burden of proof is on the Plaintiff, or party bringing the claim, to prove each element of his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence is simply a “greater weight” of evidence than that of the opposing party. An often quoted saying goes that a preponderance is equally weighted evidence plus the weight of a feather. In the case of negligent actions by the wrongdoer in wrongful death, the Plaintiff must show that the wrongdoer breached a duty of care owed to the deceased (“negligence”) and that this negligence caused the deceased’s death. The statute then provides for the measure of damages caused by the loss of life. In cases where a criminal conviction has been obtained by the State against the wrongful death defendant, such as in a case of a criminal homicide, evidence of the criminal conviction may be very helpful in proving a wrongful death case because of the higher burden of proof required of prosecutors in criminal proceedings. (In criminal cases, the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”)
The evidence needed to prove a case of wrongful death will vary with the circumstances of individual cases. The most important point to keep in mind with respect to evidence is that time destroys it at a very rapid rate. Witnesses need to be identified, photographs need to be taken of the scene of death or incident, and tangible evidence needs to be gathered in a timely manner to prevent the degradation of key information that may be invaluable in proving a wrongful death case. For these reasons, it is crucial in a wrongful death case that a competent attorney be hired as soon as possible to assist in preserving and cataloging evidence.
It is also important for the family or personal representative of a wrongful death decedent to preserve personal items of the deceased that would aid a jury in awarding damages. The jury is charged by statute to look not only to the economic value that a deceased person may have been able to produce through future earnings had he or she lived but also at the intangible element and impact the person had in life. The intangible element of a person’s life is often valued by a jury at a figure much higher than that awarded from the economic perspective. Photos, letters, poems, and stories from the deceased’s life are all admissible to educate a jury on the quality of life that the deceased person lived, and there is no limit on the award a jury can find.