Though a compensation claim may not be one of your primary considerations during a time of grief, the death of someone who is the primary income provider for the household could force you to take quicker action than you would like. Additionally, funerals can be expensive affairs - the cost of coffins can clean out your coffers - and compensation would therefore be a relief greeted with the utmost hospitality.
Ever since 1846 the relatives of people killed in an accident have been able to claim some economic assistance and with the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 this was updated for the modern era. These acts have been protecting vulnerable people, who have already had the emotional distress of losing a loved one, from the spectre of poverty and enfeeblement ever since, and compensation is their shielding defence.
Classes of fatal injury and compensation
A fatal injury claim is when someone sues for compensation on behalf of the deceased. This person must generally be a close relative of the deceased, though there are specific rules that determine who is entitled to make a claim in the case of a fatal injury.
The types of fatal injury that you can claim for, though this list is not in at all exhaustive, are as follows:
- road traffic accidents – fatal car, motorbike and other heavier vehicle accidents
- industrial diseases – some industrial disease are fatal, refer to the specific guides elsewhere on the site
- workplace accidents – some jobs are more hazardous than others, however, this does not mean that employers should not take precautions to unsure their workers safety. If an employer didn’t abide by safety rules, or someone caused the accident through negligence then compensation claims can be valid
- sports injuries – many people love playing their favourite sport, very few expect to end up dead because of this passion. Injuries are common, and very occasionally they can be so severe as to cause the death of the injured party
- criminal acts – murder and manslaughter.
There are generally three types of compensation you can claim for a fatal injury:
- bereavement – this is a set figure and attempts to mildly assuage the psychological pain we call grief
- dependency – if you relied on the deceased for some or all of your income you can make a dependency claim
- funeral expenses – the high cost of a funeral coming unexpectedly can be a shock to the bank account, sometime you may be able to claim this back.
Individuals who are eligible to claim
Obviously the person who has suffered the injury, the claimant in most cases of compensation, cannot be the one who claims in the case of a fatal accident. There are thus strict rules on who can claim, generally a close family member. The exact categories are as follows:
- Husband, wife or civil partner – there is no minimum number of years the marriage has to have lasted for and ex, and even annulled, partners are included.
- Cohabiting partner – you must have been living with your partner, with that relationship, for at least two continuous years previous to the fatal injury occurring.
- Parents or ascendants – grandparents, great-grandparents etc. are included.
- Child or descendents – this includes not only blood related children and grandchildren, but also adopted and marriage related descendents.
- Brother, sister, aunt or uncle.
Exceptions – for a criminal claim only immediate parents and children can claim.
The maximum time after which a claim can be lodged
The period of mourning for a loved one who becomes the victim of a fatal injury can be lengthy; many people never truly cease to be affected by the grief. Unless financial circumstances coerce you into prompt action it could be some time before you garner the strength to begin a compensation claim. Because of this the time period in which you are able to make a claim for fatal injury compensation extends for three years after the occurrence of the injury. This is the main principle; there is a sextet of variations on this theme.
- Delayed onset of death, less than 3 years – if the victim was injured but mortality took a period of time that is less than 3 years to take hold, then the 3 years in which to make a claim begins from the date of death, not injury.
- If one of the relatives was under 18 when the death occurred then they have 3 years from their 18th birthday to make a claim, so until they are 21. A court is more likely to disregard the 3 year rule for adults if the period has expired but one of their junior relatives, who was under the age of 18 at the time, now wishes to make a claim.
- Delayed onset of death, more than 3 years – if the victim knew of the injury whilst they were alive and did not commence a compensation claim then the relatives are out of time too. Note that this only applies if the victim knew of the injury, so if, for instance, they were in a coma for those years this exception should not apply.
- If the deceased was a child then the relative should have until the child was to reach 21 to make a claim, because the period for the child to claim themselves ends at this date.
- Mental disability – if the deceased had a mental disability then the time period of 3 years only begins when they ceased to have that disability, this could be the moment of death.
- Industrial diseases and medical negligence – because the deceased may not have been aware that they had a fatal disease until many years subsequent to contracting it, the time period generally begins from the point of death.
- Injury occurring on a ship or aircraft – the time period for a fatal compensation claim when the injury occurred on a ship or aircraft is 2 years, though this can be dependent on the injury and the specifics of the craft.
- Criminal acts – if the claim is directly against the person who caused the death then no variation applies, however, if you wish to claim from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) then you only have the standard 2 year period that CICA operate.
Find a fatal injury lawyer
In order to choose the right lawyer for your fatal injury compensation claim you need to know certain things. It is unlikely that you will find a solicitor who specialises solely in fatal injury claims — the closest kind are personal injury lawyers. They generally specialise in one area of personal injury claim, so the best option is to choose a lawyer who specialises in the area of the injury that caused the death. Because the claim is for fatal injury compensation, the process is likely to be beset by a complexity of issues relating to proving the culpability of the person at fault and the possible differing awards that each claimant is eligible for. Hence you would benefit from choosing a lawyer who has handled cases that have involved a high amount of compensation. The legal term for claims of a lot of money is high quantum claims; this may help you when identifying the correct lawyer for you.
Though it is perhaps difficult to know which lawyers are the most experienced, there are a couple of places you can look on order to give you some idea. The first is the Law Society and Solicitors Regulation Authority website; this will be able to tell you if the lawyer you are choosing is accredited as a personal injury lawyer by the Law Society. There are similar websites for the Law Societies of Scotland and Northern Ireland too. You should also peruse the website of the law firm who employ the lawyer you are considering; you will generally find information on them that will detail their experience.
Do not settle on a lawyer if you are not confident with their representation, if their personality and working practices are not to your liking then you are free to go to other solicitors and see what they can offer you.
Funding a fatal injury claim
In the absence of paying a lawyer from your own pockets, there are a few options that may or may not work for you:
- legal protection insurance cover – check the insurance policies that both you and the deceased held, home, personal, life, trade union membership etc., they may include cover that you can use for legal fees
- no win, no fee – the lawyer you choose may be able to offer you a no win, no fee basis of employment
- legal aid – certain cases will qualify for legal aid to cover the lawyer fees you will face.
The rules on who can claim for bereavement compensation differ slightly. You must be an immediately close family member to claim bereavement compensation. If the deceased was under 18 and illegitimate then only the mother can claim.
The amount for a bereavement claim is fixed at £11,800; this is if one person is claiming. If two or more people claim then the amount is £5,500 each. Dependency and funeral expenses can be claimed in addition to bereavement.
If the deceased had a will, then his executors are regarded as his estate. In the case of the injured party dying whilst a compensation claim for injuries was being processed, the estate can continue with the claim.
Determining the cause of death
The role of a coroner is to determine when and why death occurred, and if needed, who the deceased is. A coroner only has a duty to investigate a death if they suspect that it was unnatural or violent, the cause is unknown, or the deceased died whilst in the custody of the state. These sections include most deaths that happen in road traffic accidents, sporting accidents, workplace accidents, medical accidents, death at birth, and acts of criminal violence.
If an investigation is required, this is the procedure:
- The body of the deceased is placed under the control of the coroner's office until the investigation is complete.
- Post-mortem – despite what you may imagine, a post-mortem is not always necessary; a coroner may request a qualified medical practitioner to perform one if they have to investigate, or if they feel they need a post-mortem to decide whether to or not a death needs to be further investigated. A coroner will generally consult the family of the deceased prior to performing a post-mortem to secure their consent to the procedure.
- Discontinuation of investigation – if the post-mortem reveals the cause of death and the coroner has no reason to continue the investigation then it can be stopped at after the post-mortem. However, if the death was violent or unnatural or in occurred when the deceased was in the custody of the state then the coroner will be compelled to continue with the investigation.
- Inquest – the purpose of an inquest, which is generally held without a jury but in certain cases has one, is to determine whether there was a criminal or civil liability for the death, ie: whether another party was at fault and to what degree. Family members are allowed to attend an inquest.
- Outcome of inquest – though there are several specific verdicts that a coroner can give, two of the most common are unlawful killing, and accidental death (or death by misadventure).
- Unlawful killing includes not only violent criminal acts but also situations where someone was at fault due to serious negligence, such as a severe disregard for safety provisions at work or an act of dangerous driving. In the case of this verdict, there should have a strong case for compensation.
- Accidental death does not mean that no one was at fault for the death — though this is a possibility, it merely means that there was no intention of causing harm. However, you may be able to claim compensation if this is the verdict returned by the coroner. You should contact a solicitor who can give you advice on your specific case to see if it is worth trying to claim.
- Possibility of further investigation – if, in the unlikely case, the death needs further investigation, such as if the coroner believes they may have been a murder, then he will inform the relevant authorities who can pick up the investigation and continue it. If there is no need of this then the coroner’s role is over and the burial of the deceased can take place.