Suicide affects those left behind in devastating ways. One common reaction is to try to find someone or something to blame for a loved one’s death. If, in searching, there are indications that another person’s negligence was responsible for the victim’s death, then the law may provide a remedy in the form of a wrongful death legal action.
This accusation is playing out on the public stage now as celebrity actor Jim Carrey is being sued for wrongful death involving his girlfriend, Cathriona White’s, suicide in September 2015. Ms. White’s former husband, Mark Burton, is filing the suit alleging that Mr. Carrey used his celebrity status to obtain prescription painkillers and sleeping pills under a fake name, and then “recklessly” gave them to Ms. White, which she then allegedly used to commit suicide.
Claim from an ex-husband?
Wrongful death cases require that a surviving spouse or other close friend/relative/beneficiary become appointed as the personal representative of the estate through the probate court. The personal representative is responsible for pursuing the case on behalf of the decedent.
It is unclear in this case why Ms. White’s ex-husband is able to represent her. Perhaps California laws differ, but in South Carolina an ex-spouse would not be a direct beneficiary unless a will stated otherwise. It could be in this case that Mr. Burton and Ms. White have a child together and that Mr. Burton is serving as personal representative of the estate for the child beneficiary. If that’s the case, Mr. Burton would recover only the fee paid to the personal rep. under probate law (in South Carolina, that fee is 5% of the recovered amount). News reports do not mention a child, though, so it remains unclear what rights Mr. Burton has to represent Ms. White’s estate.
What is a wrongful death claim?
A wrongful death claim is made to compensate the family for the loss of the loved one. In such a case, the jury is not tasked with calculating the “value” of the decedent’s life, but rather the damages incurred by her family, including:
“(1) pecuniary loss, (2) mental shock and suffering, (3) wounded feelings, (4) grief and sorrow, (5) loss of companionship, and (6) deprivation of use and comfort of intestate’s society.” Self v. Goodrich, 300 S.C. 349, 387 S.E.2d 713 (S.C.App. 1989).
In other words, the remaining family members seek to be compensated for their feelings of loss and the changes the loss of the person’s life will make in their lives and community. Wrongful death claims can also serve to cover expenses related to the funeral and lost wages. With the Carrey case, it remains unclear what grounds Ms. White’s ex-husband has to make these claims, beyond some tabloid-like accusations that Mr. Carrey did not pay for the funeral as he promised. We’ll have to watch the news to learn more.