Representing Injured Parties in DC Wrongful Death Cases
What do you find the most interesting about wrongful death cases?
John Yannone: When family members have experienced the loss of a loved one at the hands of someone else’s negligence, it’s very shocking to them. It’s very, very personal and emotional to the survivors to see what has happened to their loved ones. So they’re tough cases from a human perspective. As the lawyer you want to help the family grieve, recover, and have closure. So from that standpoint, it’s unique. Most of the time, we’re representing people who have been injured to different degrees, some of whom recover, some of whom don’t. In that set of circumstances, you’re dealing with the actual victim. In a wrongful death case, you’re dealing with survivors who are the loved ones who have experienced the loss. From that perspective, it’s a different approach and different relationship with the clients involved.
What common mistakes have you seen people make in wrongful death cases?
John Yannone: I would say waiting too long to do something. It’s very important to get the lawyer involved as soon as possible for investigation purposes. Again, because the negligence has resulted in death and you don’t have that party to be able to say what happened, it’s very important to get an attorney involved as soon as possible to get the investigation underway and to develop the facts that are needed from any witnesses. These facts have to be developed as soon as possible, and it’s best to do so while they are still fresh and current, and before any evidence disappears. One thing that happens normally and naturally is that the survivors are not focused on taking legal action, and therefore critical time can go by, whereas if an attorney is contacted they can take over right away, try to preserve evidence, and investigate matters that will be helpful down the line. Doing so as soon as possible can be very important to the proof of the case.
What are some of the most challenging parts to wrongful death cases?
John Yannone: By the very nature of the fact that the person is deceased, you don’t have a witness to what occurred. That can be a problem if you don’t have other independent witnesses who can testify about what occurred. For example, in an auto case an issue that can come up is what proof you have as to whether the defendant was negligent, and how the accident occurred. So that’s one aspect of it. Also, the damages that we’re talking about have to be proven by others, and you have to develop that through their testimony. In a survival action, the issue of conscious pain and suffering can be determined by the circumstances. For example, if it’s an auto accident and someone has died, the question is: was death immediately upon impact, or was there a time period between impact and death, and if so, whether that person was conscious and whether they suffered? That can many times be answered by witnesses. Medical testimony is also used as to the type of injuries and what happened as a result of them leading to death. These are the kinds of things that you have to develop with regards to those issues. As to wrongful death in particular, again there are the economic losses to be determined and the relationship type losses that have to be developed through witnesses.