Wrongful death claims are a type of civil suit which can be brought against those who, directly or indirectly, contributed to the death of another individual, through actions or behaviors which fit the legal standard of recklessness or negligence. These types of claims are often divided into two separate categories: claims filed against individuals, and claims filed against groups. Individual claims are often extremely varied in nature, but the vast majority of wrongful death cases brought against groups are directed against companies.
Wrongful death claims brought against corporate actors are, in fact, the only way in which the family of an individual who is killed as a result of a company’s actions can find the justice they deserve. From a legal standpoint, a company or corporation cannot be held criminally liable for any damages it may cause (though, in rare instances, corporate leaders may personally be subject to criminal charges), and therefore financial liability is the only form of punishment available for this type of wrongdoing.
Notable Instances of Corporate Wrongful Death Claims
Wrongful death claims against corporate groups have a long history in the United States’ legal tradition. An early example of this type of claim involved the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred in New York City in the early 20th century. The factory, which was located in the upper floors of a cramped industrial building in downtown New York, caught fire in the late hours of the workday, and because one of the two exit doors was locked, hundreds of workers were trapped inside and burned to death. The victims’ families filed twenty-three separate civil suits against the factory’s owners, most of which were successful.
Another prominent wrongful death claim filed as a result of corporate negligence involved the Ford Motor Company’s Pinto model. The design of the fuel tank for this vehicle increased the likelihood that the tank would rupture and explode if involved in an accident, even a relatively minor fender-bender. More damningly, a memo obtained by several news agencies in the late 1970s revealed that not only was Ford’s management aware of the problem, but that they had decided that it would be more profitable to settle any legal suits which might later arise rather than fix the problem for each of the vehicles already in circulation. As a result, many of the suits eventually filed against Ford Motor Company resulted in substantially higher jury awards than might have otherwise been expected.
Corporate wrongful death lawsuits can also involved actions committed by individuals acting as agents of a corporation. For instance, a trucking accident lawyer representing the family of a truck accident victim may be able to successfully pursue compensation from the trucking company, rather than the truck driver responsible for the accident, if outside circumstances demonstrate that the company was in some way responsible for the accident’s occurrence.