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Addressing Nontraditional Claims in Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Jennifer A. Barry

In Rhode Island, the spouse of a married person, and the son or daughter of a parent, may recover money damages for the loss of the marital relationship or parental relationship caused by the wrongful death of a married person or parent. Rhode Island law recognizes that, in certain situations, common law marriages and equitable adoptions are legally valid, and create legally enforceable rights, even in the absence of a licensed marriage or formal court-approved adoption. Our firm has successfully asserted claims in wrongful death lawsuits for the loss of a spouse or parent on behalf of clients whose marital and parental relationships existed based on these equitable theories, even in the absence of formal marriages and adoptions.

The process for establishing the validity of these claims is very fact-intensive, but certain general criteria have been established by Rhode Island’s courts when addressing these issues. For example, in determining whether there is a parent-child relationship pursuant to equitable adoption for purposes of Rhode Island’s wrongful death act, the courts have looked to the following factors. First, did the deceased person treat the child as his/her own child? Second, did the deceased person care for and nurture the child? Third, did the child give the deceased person affection, devotion, and obedience similar to that as would be expected in a parental relationship, and lastly, was there an agreement, either expressed or implied from the circumstances, between the child’s biological parent and the decedent. Similarly, in establishing the existence of a common law marriage for purposes of the Rhode Island wrongful death act, courts have looked to several different factors including: did the individuals mutually agree and consent to be husband and wife; did they conduct themselves as husband and wife; did their conduct give rise to the general belief among friends and in the community that they were married; and were there no legal impediments to the existence of the marriage?

These nontraditional claims can be easily overlooked by both injured families and attorneys not familiar with the existence and intricacies of wrongful death claims. That is why it is of the utmost importance that you select an attorney who has the skill and experience to recognize all of the potential claims involved. Our office has successfully represented families whose familial relationships were based on the more flexible and less formal equity-based theories of common law marriage and equitable adoption.