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March 2020 Education Newsletter

March 2020 Education Newsletter

Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Alabama

Like other states, Alabama has laws that govern wrongful death claims brought to civil court within the state. In this article, we'll examine several key points of Alabama wrongful death law, including how the state defines "wrongful death," who may bring a wrongful death suit to court, and the time limits on filing such claims.

Alabama law defines a "wrongful death" as one that is caused by the "wrongful act, omission, or negligence" of another. Section 6-5-410 of the Code of Alabama specifies that the estate of a deceased person may bring a wrongful death suit against a party that causes such a death in any case in which the deceased person could have brought a personal injury claim, had he or she had lived.

The statute provides a useful way of thinking about a wrongful death claim: as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer capable of seeking compensation from the party that caused the injury. Instead, the estate of the deceased person steps in to seek compensation on the deceased person's behalf. Any losses that a negligent party is held liable for must be paid back to the estate.

The Code of Alabama also states that a wrongful death claim may be brought to court "though there has not been prosecution, conviction, or acquittal of the defendant" for the "wrongful act, omission, or negligence" that caused the death. In other words, a wrongful death claim may be filed in a civil court even if the defendant is not facing criminal charges related to the same death.

A wrongful death case differs from a criminal case in two key ways. First, a wrongful death case is a civil claim, which is brought by a private party. A criminal case is filed by the state against a certain person or entity. Second, liability in a civil case is expressed solely in terms of damages, while guilt in a criminal case may be punished by imprisonment or other penalties.

Unlike other states, Alabama does not allow family members of a deceased person to file a wrongful death claim, either on their own behalf or on behalf of the deceased person.

Instead, Alabama limits the ability to file a wrongful death claim to the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. Only the estate may bring a wrongful death case, and all damages in a wrongful death case in Alabama are paid to the estate.

Alabama handles damages in wrongful death cases differently than other states. While most U.S. states allow for compensatory damages in wrongful death cases to cover the costs of funeral expenses, medical bills, and other losses resulting from the untimely death, Alabama wrongful death law allows only for punitive damages. In other words, while most states focus on the loss of the deceased person's life and related damages, Alabama wrongful death law focuses almost completely on the wrongdoing of the defendant.

Alabama's wrongful death law has a twofold purpose: to punish a defendant who is found negligent, and to deter similar negligence by other parties. Any damages awarded in a wrongful death case are paid directly to the heirs of the deceased person. Unlike in other states, the damages are not made part of the estate.

As in any state, the place in which the deceased person passed away is a key factor in determining which state's wrongful death laws apply. In order for the Alabama law to apply to a wrongful death case, the deceased person must have passed away within the borders of the state of Alabama. If the deceased person passed away in another state, the laws of that state will apply to the wrongful death case. If you have questions about which state's laws apply in a particular case, get in touch with an experienced attorney.

The amount a family might recover in punitive damages varies according to the seriousness of the crime. Any recovered award will go directly to the decedent’s heirs, not to the estate. Alabama courts place a cap of $1,500,000 on the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff can receive in wrongful death claims.

Alabama's "statute of limitations" sets a time limit for filing a wrongful death claim in Alabama's civil court system. The case must be filed within two years of the date of death. Because certain factors can change the running of this two-year time period, it is wise for personal representatives considering a wrongful death suit in Alabama to seek the advice of an attorney who is licensed to practice law within the state.

At Least 8 Killed, 35 Vessels Burned in Alabama Marina Fire

A massive fire that killed at least eight people and destroyed dozens of boats in an Alabama marina January 27th was spread so rapidly by the wind that “we didn’t have time to do nothing,” said one resident who survived but lost his brother in the cold water.

Tommy Jones, a Jackson County Park Marina resident, said he also watched helplessly as a small boat containing a woman and her children was engulfed in flames.

“There was nothing we could do,” he said.

Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus said all eight people who were known to be missing have been confirmed dead, and “that number could go up, because we don’t know how many were on boats” that sank.

The fire began just after midnight and quickly consumed the dock as people slept. The wooden dock and at least 35 vessels went up in flames and an aluminum roof that covered many of the boats melted and collapsed, cutting off escape routes and raining debris over the area as boaters leaped into the river.

Jones said he was aboard his 35-foot cabin cruiser when someone came banging on the boat after midnight saying, “Man, the marina is on fire.” The flames were racing out to the far end of the dock where Jones’ boat was tied.

Jones said he and several other men cut some boats free and sent them drifting out into the water. When a man placed his wife and children into a small boat, they cut that boat free too. Finally, Jones said, he jumped into the water and swam for shore, 200 yards away. He believes his brother Yancey Roper, who lived aboard another boat, swam in a different direction. Officials later told him that his brother had drowned.

As Jones was swimming for shore in water with a temperature in the mid-50s, he said, “I looked back and that other boat with the wife and the children on it was all engulfed in flames.”

At least seven people were sent to hospitals suffering from exposure to the flames or the frigid water.

People on boats patrol near the charred remains of a dock following a fatal fire at a Tennessee River marina in Scottsboro, Ala., Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Authorities said the explosive fire was reported overnight while people were sleeping on boats tied up at the structure.

“It was scary. The worst thing for me is you could hear people screaming for help, and there was nothing we could do. Nobody could do anything to get to them,” said Julie Jackson, who lives with her husband and son in a houseboat on another dock that did not burn.

Necklaus said some of the burning boats sank at the dock and others floated away before going under. He said divers need to locate each one and search them individually before they can be sure there were no other victims.

“We woke up hearing screams and popping noises,” Mandy Durham, who was with her boyfriend in a nearby boat, told The Associated Press. “When we woke up, we could see red through the window.”

“Within 15 to 20 minutes, the whole dock was in flames,” she added. “All these boats have propane tanks and gas tanks, and that’s a lot of fire.”

The blaze destroyed the B dock, about 50 yards (46 meters) from the A dock where the boat of Durham’s boyfriend was moored.

“There were numerous people rescued from the water who had escaped by going into the water,” Jackson County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Rocky Harnen told the AP shortly after dawn. “We’re trying to get divers down here to search for possible victims.”

People were jumping onto a boat at the end of the dock because fire had consumed the middle portion and that was their only escape. But then the flames spread to that boat, leaving water as their only way out, Durham said.

“Water was the only place they had to go,” Durham said. “Its just extremely sad. It’s horrible.”

Georgia resident Michael Watson said his aunt lived with her husband and five children on one of the boats that burned. He said his aunt was confirmed among the dead and authorities are still looking for the other six family members. Officials have not released the names of any of those killed or missing.

Hours after sunrise, smoke was still rising from the remains of a wooden dock, and pieces of metal that once formed the roof were partially submerged. Police and fire boats with flashing lights were positioned near the charred remains, and a yellow floating boom was being deployed around the marina to contain spilled fuel.

Most of the boats that were destroyed had people living on them permanently, but some mainly spent weekends on them, Durham said. The park includes a boat ramp, a dock and a restaurant, and offers boat rentals, according to Jackson County’s government website.

“Everybody is just hoping to find the ones they knew on that dock. There were families there. It’s devastating,” Durham said.

Source:  Associated Press

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