A wrongful death case is usually, at its core, fairly simple. It generally just means that negligence was shown by one party and it led to the death of the other. For example, this could be used after medical malpractice or a doctor's error leads to the passing.
However, a survival action is an addition to the lawsuit that can go above and beyond the wrongful death alone. It also takes into account the person's other losses before he or she passed away. This could include the loss of wages if the person could not work or damages like pain and suffering if he or she was injured before the passing.
For example, if someone dies in a car accident, that may be enough for a wrongful death lawsuit in Illinois, which could happen if the person passed away at the scene. However, what if he or she lived for six months after the crash, in great pain, and the person was confined to the hospital? The person may have eventually died from the injuries, which still stem from the accident, but he or she also had to suffer in the hospital for six months and was not able to work during that time, resulting in financial losses.
A survival action essentially makes the distinction that not all wrongful deaths are the same. If the person had pulled through and lived, he or she may have sued for lost wages and pain and suffering anyway. Family members are not always denied that right simply because the person did not survive, so they can then set up the lawsuits to reflect this.
When starting a lawsuit, you must know all of your legal options for compensation.
Source: Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, "Beware! The pitfalls of wrongful death and survival actions," Miranda L. Soucie and James D. Spiros, accessed May. 07, 2015