This is a tricky question because there is a specific amount of time in which a wrongful death suit can be filed and it varies from state to state. This is because each state puts a time limit, known as a statute of limitations, on when a cause of action for wrongful death can be filed. A suit that is filed after the statute of limitations has run or expired will be dismissed as untimely and the family will be left without any recourse. You may find it helpful to discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.
Most states give the survivors of the deceased one to three years after the death occurs to file the suit. Many states split the difference and allow a two-year period. This can be a fairly straightforward calculation when the death is obviously caused by the preventable action of another, for example in the case of car accidents, industrial accidents, or other situations where it is clear that but for the actions of an individual, the person’s death would not have occurred.
The issue becomes more complicated when it is not immediately obvious that the victim died because of the actions of another. For example, a patient may have died from medical malpractice, but this fact is kept from the family and heirs until some later time after the statute of limitations has run. In this case, the courts will usually find that the time in which the survivors have to file a suit did not actually start until they learned that it was the medical malpractice that killed their loved one.
Similarly, if someone used a product, died, and their death was found not to be related at all to their use of the product but then later on it is discovered that this product in fact did cause their death, then again, the period of time to file the suit would not start until the family learned of the real cause of death. The key in these situations is that the family who would have the cause of action were left in the dark as to what actually happened – either on purpose or because it was genuinely not known at the time – and should not be penalized for not learning the truth until more than two or three years after their loved one’s death.
In cases where a person is injured due to negligence and then dies later from complications of that injury, this may or may not fall within the statute of limitations. Some states allow for an extra period of time to be tacked on in these situations since the death is still related to the original act of negligence. Even then, though, if there is too much time past between the injury and the death, the family may be shut out entirely.
Another factor that plays into the statute of limitations is the defendant. If the defendant is an individual, then there is usually no problem. However, if the defendant is a city or a municipality, the state law for that city may limit the statute of limitations even further than is already limited. Suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act has its own statute of limitations. So, it is very important to pay attention to who is being sued to determine how much time there is to file the suit.