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How Soon After an Injury Event Must a Victim Die to Qualify as a Wrongful Death?

In the case of a car crash, an accident victim may die within seconds. But other injury events, such as a misdiagnosis of cancer, can cause harm to a person that results in death months or even years later. Does the protracted period of time relieve the defendant in any way from responsibility for the victim’s death? The answer often depends not on the length of time, but on subsequent events that might also have impacted the victim’s health.

Tennessee criminal courts long held to a common-law rule that the victim of an assault must die from his wounds within a year and a day for the assailant to be charged with murder. But the Tennessee Supreme Court abolished that outmoded rule in 2000, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision in 2001. Similarly, the Tennessee civil courts are not bound by any strict time limit regarding wrongful death. If a negligent, reckless or deliberate harmful act is the cause of a person’s death, a surviving spouse or other eligible plaintiff may bring suit. However, the extended period of time between the injury event and the death can raise questions of the proximate, or legal, cause of the death. Consider this example: A man is driving to work when a car runs a stop sign and hits his vehicle. The man bangs his head, but is otherwise unharmed. He declines medical assistance at the scene. He starts to suffer from headaches and, after a few days, he goes to the emergency room. The attending physician keeps him waiting for two hours before sending him for an MRI. On the way down for tests, the man dies from a ruptured aneurism. His widow sues the driver who hit him for wrongful death.

The question for the court will be whether the initial blow to the head is the cause of the man’s death, or whether his delay in seeking medical assistance or malpractice in the ER are intervening events that are the true cause of his death. What the widow must prove is a continuous causal connection between the car crash and her husband’s death. The defendant will assert that intervening causes broke that connection.

In the case of the misdiagnosed cancer patient, the plaintiff must prove that the death can be traced back to the initial mistake of not recognizing obvious cancer symptoms and failing to pursue appropriate treatments. If, in the months between the misdiagnosis and the death, other mistakes were made — medication errors during chemo treatment or surgical errors during procedures to remove tumors — a court might find the causal connection has been broken.

Proving causation in personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits can be complex. If you have questions about your case, speak to a concerned attorney at Massengill, Caldwell & Coughlin, P.C. Call us today at 423-797-6022 to schedule your free initial consultation, or contact us online.

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