Understanding California's Wrongful Death Laws LaJolla.com

Understanding California’s Wrongful Death Laws

Wrongful death is a legal term used to describe a death that has occurred due to the fault or negligence of another person. It can arise from a wide range of circumstances, such as medical malpractice, hazardous work conditions, defective products, or car accidents. A wrongful death lawsuit in California is significant because it allows surviving family members to seek justice and financial restitution for their loss. 

California wrongful death laws ensure that victims and their families are given the compensation they deserve, while providing a deterrent against negligent behavior.  Future tragedies can be prevented when people understand that the consequences of their choices will be far reaching.  In this way, wrongful death laws are an important part of protecting public safety and providing justice and closure for those who have suffered a terrible loss.  

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim in California

A California wrongful death suit can be filed by the deceased person’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, or any other entity that is legally entitled to recover damages for the death. In some cases, if there are no living members of these categories then other family members such as parents or siblings may file a claim. Those who are filing a wrongful death lawsuit in California must be able to prove that their relationship with the deceased was significant and that they suffered economic losses as a result of the death.

In some special cases, individuals who were financially dependent on the person who died, such as stepchildren or other adopted family members may also be eligible to file a wrongful death claim. Additionally, certain circumstances may also allow those who weren’t related to the decedent to pursue legal action as long as they can demonstrate that their relationship was close and that they were financially dependent on the deceased.

How to Establish Liability in a Wrongful Death Case

In order to prove liability in a wrongful death lawsuit California, you must prove that the defendant had a duty of care toward the deceased and that they breached this duty by acting negligently or intentionally wrongfully.  The person filing the lawsuit and their lawyer must show that the defendant’s conduct involved a disregard for human life or was otherwise careless. You must also demonstrate that negligence or intentionally wrongful act caused the death of your loved one and how the death could have been avoided if reasonable care had been taken.  

Additionally, it must be proven that the defendant’s actions resulted in damages such as medical bills, pain, suffering, lost wages, or funeral expenses.  Each case is unique and the amount of compensation will vary depending on the facts of the case. An experienced wrongful death lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and develop a successful strategy for pursuing justice.

Statute of Limitations for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim

Under California wrongful death law, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim in California is two years from the date of the person’s death. It is important to understand this time constraint because if you do not file the lawsuit before the statute of limitations has expired, your case can be denied completely.  It is also important to understand that it often takes time for a lawyer to gather the information and evidence needed and to write up the documents needed to file a lawsuit.  That’s why it is so important to contact an experienced lawyer as soon as possible to ensure that your lawsuit is filed on time. 

There are some exceptions and extensions that may allow you to file outside of the two year window, so it is important to speak with an experienced attorney about your particular case.  For example,  if it can be proven that fraud or intentional concealment of facts was made in order to prevent you from filing your lawsuit then an exception might apply.  An experienced wrongful death lawyer can help you understand all of your legal options and ensure that you meet the necessary deadlines for filing a successful claim.

Damages and Compensation in California Wrongful Death Cases

In California, there are different types of damages, or monetary awards, that can be sought in a wrongful death claim. These begin with economic damages, which is the actual money that the defendant cost the person who died or that person’s family.  It also may include non-economic damages, which is what the defendant should pay to the victim’s family for the pain and suffering they caused.  In some cases, punitive damages may also be recovered if the defendant’s conduct was especially egregious or intentional.  In California, juries use a multiplier approach to calculate damages. This means that they take into consideration the deceased’s life expectancy and economic losses from the wrongful death in order to determine an appropriate amount of compensation for the loss of companionship and other intangible losses. 

Economic Damages

Economic damages are specific, measurable monetary losses that the decedent’s family has suffered as a result of their loved one’s death. These may include medical bills, funeral and burial expenses, or lost wages from the deceased’s income.  These can be especially important when family members had relied on the deceased’s person’s income.

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages, also known as “general” or “compensatory” damages, are more difficult to calculate because they are not tangible losses. These include compensation for the loss of companionship and comfort, pain and suffering experienced by the deceased prior to their death, or loss of care, protection and guidance that the deceased provided to their family. 

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for their actions and serve as a deterrent. These damages are awarded when it is proven that the defendant acted with “malice, oppression, or fraud” in causing the death of an individual. Punitive damages can be calculated by going through various factors such as the severity of the defendant’s misconduct, the defendant’s financial condition, and other factors. However, punitive damages are rarely awarded in wrongful death cases and it is important to speak with an experienced attorney about whether or not you may be eligible for this type of compensation. 

Distribution of Wrongful Death Compensation

Under the wrongful death statute California, whatever award the court gives at the end of a wrongful death lawsuit will be distributed to the beneficiaries of the deceased’s estate according to the state law. Generally, this includes spouses, children, and any other family member who was financially dependent on the deceased at the time of their death. 

The court will oversee the distribution to ensure that all claims are valid and that each beneficiary receives their rightful amount.  The court appoints a personal representative (or executor) to administer and distribute the wrongful death award to all qualified beneficiaries as outlined in the will or state law.  Additionally, they will take into account any special circumstances involving individual beneficiaries such as minor children or disabled individuals. 

Survival Actions in California

A survival action is a civil lawsuit that is brought on behalf of the deceased and seeks damages for any pain, suffering, or economic losses experienced by the decedent prior to their death. These claims are generally separate from wrongful death claims and allow you to pursue compensation beyond the limits set in a wrongful death claim.  It is important to note that you may pursue both a wrongful death claim and survival action at the same time as they are separate legal claims with their own set of damages and statutes of limitation. 

Wrongful Death Lawsuits against Government Entities

If a government entity is responsible for the death of an individual, you may bring a wrongful death claim against them. However, it is important to keep in mind that when suing a government entity there are special rules and regulations that apply. Generally, before bringing a lawsuit against the government, written notice of your intention must be given to the government entity. Additionally, the potential compensation amount that can be awarded is limited by various laws and regulations.

Moreover, in California, most wrongful death lawsuits against government entities are subject to sovereign immunity. This means that you may not be able to sue for certain damages or may need to provide additional evidence in order to prove your case.

Selecting and Working with a Wrongful Death Attorney

When selecting an attorney to handle your claim, it is important to find someone who is experienced in California wrongful death law and has a proven track record of success. Hire someone you can trust and who you feel comfortable working with.  The entire process will be emotionally draining and complex and you will need to work with your attorney through the entire claim process.  As such, it is very important to choose a lawyer who is experienced and professional.  

Common Challenges and Defenses in Wrongful Death Cases

Wrongful death cases can be complex and involve a variety of challenges. Some common defenses include comparative negligence, which is when the deceased was partially responsible for their own death, or assumption of risk, which is when the person who died was aware of and willingly assumed the risks associated with a particular activity that resulted in their death.  

Wrongful death claims are complex and emotionally draining legal proceedings that require a thorough understanding of the law as well as knowledge of the various challenges and defenses that may arise.   If your loved one died as a result of someone else’s negligence or intentionally wrongful behavior, you or your loved one’s family may be entitled to compensation. To get some justice for what happened, and to prevent more wrongful deaths in the future, consult with a qualified attorney who can assist you in your case.