Miami University and several current and former administrators have been sued for wrongful death. Unlike speeding and littering which are household terms, a wrongful death lawsuit is more complicated than a ticket or a fine.
What is wrongful death?
In Ohio, wrongful death is a civil lawsuit against a party or individual “after a death that occurs due to another person’s or party’s "wrongful act, neglect, or default,” according to Ohio Revised Code 2125.
A wrongful act is often described as an act of violence or assault against the individual, and neglect relates to legal negligence from a company or organization. Negligence is described as “A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances,” according to Cornell University.
Both wrongful acts and negligence can be done by an individual or a group. This creates an opportunity for an individual and the company they are associated with to be involved in the lawsuit.
Who files, when and against whom?
The only person that can file a wrongful death lawsuit is the individual named as the personal representative of the estate of the deceased person in the lawsuit. This means that the plaintiff is a surviving family member or an executor named in the deceased’s will.
There is a window of two years after the date of death that a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed.
In Adriene Knight v. Miami University et. al., Miami’s Board of Trustees, Jason Osborne, Lindsay Carpenter and Ruth Groom, the plaintiff, Adriene Knight, filed the lawsuit one year and 364 days after the death of her husband, William “Bill” Knight.
A wrongful death lawsuit is able to combine an overarching group like Miami University and the individuals involved because a singular person can commit wrongful acts while the organization can commit negligence.
Because Miami is a state university, the lawsuit was also filed in the Ohio Court of Claims. The Court of Claims works as a legal defense for entities under the state of Ohio and includes the Attorney General.
If a lawsuit proceeds in the Court of Claims, the verdict will be decided as a bench trial rather than a jury trial. This is determined by Ohio law and gives the judge the final word.
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“In the event that a lawsuit makes it decided by a judge to be seen by the Court of Claims and makes it through the system, the defense will have the support of the Attorney General [of] Ohio's lawyers and their own private lawyers,” Gus Lazares, a trial lawyer at Rittgers, Rittgers and Nakajima said.
In a lawsuit that was dismissed in March of this year, the family of a student at The Ohio State University sued the university for wrongful death after their son was shot and killed on campus.
The lawsuit was filed against the university as a whole rather than an individual because it related to university rules and safety surrounding fraternity houses, not specific individuals inside the organization. The lawsuit was filed exactly two years after the death of the student.
What happens in the lawsuit?
Unlike other civic suits, wrongful death requires a standard of truth rather than proving something beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the jury has to find that the alleged events are more likely to have happened than not.
According to the U.S. Courts, “To prove an element by a preponderance of the evidence simply means to prove that something is more likely than not. In other words, in light of the evidence and the law, do you believe that each element of his/her [claim/counterclaim] is more likely true than not.”
“In a criminal case, the outcome could be prison or death in some state,” Lazares said. “In a wrongful death case, there is only money on the line. That makes the stakes lower which makes the evidence needed lower.”
The goal of a wrongful death lawsuit is monetary compensation to the affected family. The Ohio Constitution prohibits a limit on recoverable damages, or compensation, for wrongful death lawsuits.
Compensation comes in different sections, all related to the deceased’s impact on the person who filed the lawsuit. These include loss of an individual's income, loss of an individual’s benefits such as health insurance or pension and loss of a possible inheritance according to Ohio attorneys Kisling, Nestico and Reddick.
The plaintiff can also file for survival action. Survival action is compensation for the time between the negligent action and the loss of life.
“What isn’t seen in these cases is that insurance companies are backing the defendant,” Lazares said. “All the funding is not just coming from the individual.”
In January, the family of Stone Foltz, a deceased Bowling Green State University (BGSU) student, received a record $2.9 million settlement following a wrongful death lawsuit. The $2.9 million came from the lawsuit against BGSU, but there were 18 other entities and individuals involved in the lawsuit. The total amount from all 18 individuals was $7.2 million.
In the Foltz case, the 18 individuals were ordered to pay different amounts by a jury’s decision. In Ohio, the jury decides how much each individual is responsible for in the lawsuit. That responsibility directly relates to how much the defendant will pay.
“The jury receives sheets that show different sections like emotional damages or loss of income,” Lazares said. “The jury then decides what the plaintiff should be awarded and what percentage each defendant is responsible for.”
In Knight’s case, she is asking for a total settlement of at least $125,000 from a total of five parties. Ohio law requires that if the plaintiff is asking for more than $25,000, they must ask for “in excess of $25,000,” as seen in Knight’s lawsuit.
“Ohio law makes it so that if you ask for more than $25,000 you just say ‘in excess of $25,000,’” Lazares said. “It’s a pro-defense law. It helps with [public relations] as well.”
Many wrongful death lawsuits do not end in civic court or a claims court. It’s estimated that more than 90% of wrongful death cases do not go to trial, according to Rechtman and Spevak.
“Almost all wrongful death lawsuits get settled out of court,” Lazares said. “It’s common that the case will be settled out of court and then the public won’t know how much it was settled for.”