What is the Statute of Limitations for a Wrongful Death Action?

G. Wiesen

The statute of limitations for a wrongful death action varies depending on which state of the United States (US) the death occurred within, and can range anywhere from six months to three years. In addition to the general statute of limitations regarding filing a course of action for wrongful death, there are also certain restrictions and exceptions made to some statutes regarding specific situations. Generally, a lawyer within the state where the wrongful death occurred should be contacted, and any action should be filed as soon as possible to avoid missing the opportunity to pursue legal action.

Mourners at a funeral.
Mourners at a funeral.

In the US, a wrongful death action is a civil case in which select family members of a person who was killed or who died due to someone else’s actions sue the person for damages due to the death. Unlike a criminal case of murder or homicide, a wrongful death action only needs to be proven by a “preponderance of the evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that situations can arise where a person is found not guilty of a criminal action but is convicted in civil court for the same offense. Some states, however, have passed laws that require that a person must be convicted of a criminal offense before a wrongful death action may be brought against him or her.

Contractors who are not given proper safety equipment when removing asbestos might develop life threatening diseases.
Contractors who are not given proper safety equipment when removing asbestos might develop life threatening diseases.

The actual statute of limitations for a wrongful death action, which is the time period in which the action must be filed, varies from state to state and can change based on the situation. For example, Arizona, California, and Alabama all require that a wrongful death action must be filed within two years of the date of the person’s death. In California, however, there is an exception made for death due to exposure to asbestos. The statute of limitations for such deaths is one year from when the death occurred or one year from when a plaintiff knew that asbestos caused the death, whichever is later.

This type of exception is referred to as a “discovery rule” and allows for the statute of limitations to be extended in situations where the full knowledge of what caused a wrongful death was not immediately known. In the state of Washington, the statute of limitations for wrongful death is three years, and in Colorado it is two years from the date of death. Colorado, however, has an exception for death caused by the use of a motor vehicle, which extends the statute of limitations to three years. These various exceptions, additions, and “discovery rules” can make fully understanding the statute of limitations for a particular state difficult to determine, and a legal professional should be consulted immediately by anyone interested in filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

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Discussion Comments


I am pleased to read in this article that some states do not allow wrongful death suits in cases where the would-be defendant has already been tried and found not guilty of a crime. I have always thought it was a lot like double jeopardy when a person is found not guilty of murder, and then had to go through a legal trial where he is accused of wrongful death.

To me, a wrongful death suit against a person found not guilty seems like nothing more than having the same trial a second time, but in a different court and with a different punishment if the defendant is found guilty. Instead of going to prison the defendant is faced with financial punishment in the wrongful death case.


@Animandel - There are many different types of cases of wrongful death, so I think the statute of limitations should reflect the circumstances of each case. If someone murders someone while he is trying to rob a store or a home then I agree there should be no statute of limitations.

However, if a person breaks a traffic law and causes an accident and kills someone without intending to then that is a totally different situation. As bad as this situation is, the person who caused the accident needs to be able to get on with his life at some point without worrying about a wrongful death suit being filed against him for something that happened years and years in the past.


I don't understand why there is a statute of limitations on a wrongful death legal action. If a person caused the death of someone because he or she acted irresponsibly then that person should be subject to legal actions no matter how much time goes by.

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