Understanding Wrongful Death Lawsuits: An Overview of California’s Legal Framework.

wrongful death case

Wrongful death lawsuits are a form of legal redress that seeks compensation for the survivors of a deceased person whose death resulted from negligence, wrongdoing, or misconduct. In California, the laws governing wrongful death claims are particularly detailed, with specific guidelines on who can file, what damages are recoverable, and the timeframe within which to initiate a claim. 

The team of Wrongful Death lawyers at Stalwart Law have created an overview of the legal framework in California regarding wrongful death lawsuits.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?

In California, the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit is specifically enumerated by law to ensure that only those closely related to the deceased or who were financially dependent upon them can seek compensation. The following individuals, as defined by the California Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, typically have the right to bring a wrongful death claim:

The deceased’s surviving spouse: This is typically the first individual who has the right to file. If there’s no surviving spouse, the right moves down the line of succession.

The deceased’s domestic partner: California recognizes domestic partnerships, and a surviving domestic partner has similar rights to a surviving spouse.

The deceased’s surviving children: If there’s no surviving spouse or domestic partner, the deceased’s children typically have the right to file. In cases where the deceased’s children are also deceased but have left behind children (the deceased’s grandchildren), those grandchildren may be able to bring a claim.

Others who may inherit from the deceased’s estate by intestate succession: If the deceased did not leave behind a spouse, domestic partner, children, or grandchildren, other relatives like parents or siblings might be able to file a wrongful death claim if they would be entitled to the deceased’s property by intestate succession.

Anyone who was financially dependent on the deceased: This can include a putative spouse (someone who had a good faith belief that they were married to the deceased but weren’t legally married) and the children of the putative spouse. Parents or stepchildren of the deceased may also be able to bring a claim if they were financially dependent on the deceased.

It’s always advisable for individuals considering a wrongful death lawsuit in California to consult with an attorney who specializes in wrongful death claims to understand their rights and the complexities of the legal process.

What Types of Damages are Recoverable in a Wrongful Death Claim?

California allows for both economic and non-economic damages in wrongful death cases. 

Medical and funeral expenses

The outstanding medical bills and funeral costs can be a huge burden to the family in the aftermath of death. Particularly if the circumstances are unexpected and tragic. Some of the medical and funeral expenses which can be claimed as part of a wrongful death claim. 

Loss of the deceased’s expected earnings

Beyond the emotional toll of losing a loved one, families may grapple with financial hardships, especially if the deceased was a primary breadwinner. California’s wrongful death laws acknowledge this, permitting survivors to claim for the loss of the deceased’s expected earnings.

What Constitutes Loss of Expected Earnings?

The loss of expected earnings represents the income the deceased would reasonably have earned in the future had they lived. It’s a projection, accounting for the deceased’s age, health, life expectancy, occupation, skills, and other relevant factors. This compensation aims to provide financial security to the family, in line with what the deceased would have contributed.

How is the Loss of Expected Earnings Calculated in a wrongful death claim?

This aspect of damages can be complex, requiring meticulous analysis by a lawyer specializing in wrongful death claims:

Historical Earnings: The starting point often involves examining the deceased’s past earnings, pay stubs, tax returns, and employment records.

Future Potential: Factors like career trajectory, education, and promotions the deceased might have received are considered. If the deceased was young or in school, expert testimonies might determine potential future earnings.

Deductions: The expected costs of living and personal consumption costs that the deceased would have used are subtracted from the total.

Loss of benefits (like pension or medical coverage)

Claiming for Non-Economic Damages in a California Wrongful Death Claim

The loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, and moral support.

When tragedy strikes and a loved one is lost due to another’s negligence, the tangible financial implications are evident. However, equally paramount, though intangible, are the emotional and relational voids left in the deceased’s absence. California’s wrongful death laws acknowledge these profound non-economic losses, allowing families to claim for the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, and moral support.

Unlike medical bills or lost earnings which have a clear monetary value, non-economic damages recognize the emotional and relational aspects of a person’s life. These damages highlight the deep personal bonds, warmth, guidance, and comfort a person provides to their family members and the immeasurable vacuum their loss creates.

The inherent challenge with non-economic damages is their subjective nature. Factors considered include:

The nature and closeness of the relationship between the deceased and the claimant.

The age, health, and life expectancy of both the deceased and the claimant.

The extent of emotional dependence, guidance, and care provided by the deceased.

The loss of enjoyment of sexual relations or training and guidance, in the case of a deceased parent.

The bond between spouses or life partners is multi-faceted, with intimacy playing a significant role in the relationship’s fabric. In wrongful death cases, a surviving spouse can claim for the loss of such intimate relations, reflecting the void in their personal and emotional lives.

The role of a parent isn’t just about financial sustenance. Parents shape their children’s futures, offering:

  • Moral and ethical guidance.
  • Lessons in resilience, perseverance, and kindness.
  • Everyday life skills and training.
  • Emotional support during challenging life phases.

When children lose a parent due to wrongful death, they lose this reservoir of wisdom, care, and guidance. Recognizing this, the State of California allows children to claim for this immeasurable loss.

Quantifying the Immeasurable: The Challenge

The subjective nature of these losses means they’re hard to quantify. 

Courts often consider:

  • The nature and closeness of the relationship.
  • Testimonies from family members, friends, and sometimes therapists.
  • The age and life stage of the claimants (for example, younger children may have longer to go without parental guidance).
  • Legal Nuances and Considerations

Given the personal and intimate nature of these claims, they can be emotionally taxing. Having an experienced wrongful death lawyer ensures that claimants navigate these challenges with sensitivity and assertiveness.

While financial compensation cannot replace the warmth of marital intimacy or the irreplaceable guidance of a parent, it acknowledges the profound impact of these losses on survivors. California’s wrongful death laws strive to recognize and compensate for these intimate and personal aspects of relationships, underscoring the idea that some of life’s most valuable treasures are its relationships and the nuanced roles loved ones play in our lives.

Statute of Limitations for wrongful death claims in California

The loss of a loved one due to the negligence or misconduct of another is a traumatic event. While legal proceedings may not be the first thought in the minds of grieving families, it’s crucial to be aware of the legal time frames to pursue justice. One such pivotal legal principle is the “statute of limitations.” 

In legal parlance, the statute of limitations defines the maximum period after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. Simply put, it’s a ticking clock, and once time runs out, a lawsuit can’t typically be filed.

In California, the general rule for wrongful death claims is that the lawsuit must be filed within two years from the date of the person’s death. If a suit isn’t filed within this period, the court will most likely refuse to hear the case, barring some exceptions.

Exceptions to the Rule:

While the two-year guideline is standard, some scenarios can alter this timeframe:

Discovery Rule: If the cause of death wasn’t immediately known or was discovered later, the statute might be extended. The clock would start from the “date of discovery” of the wrongful act leading to death rather than the actual date of death.

Government Entity: If the wrongful death was caused due to the negligence of a government entity, a claim must usually be filed within six months from the date of the incident.

Minors: If the decedent’s heirs are minors, special rules might extend the statute, allowing them more time.

Understanding Comparative Negligence in a California Wrongful Death Claim

California operates under a “pure comparative negligence” system. This means that if the deceased was partially at fault for their death, the compensation can be reduced by that percentage of fault. For example, if the deceased was found to be 20% at fault, the final compensation would be reduced by 20%.

California has a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. This means that even if a jury awards a higher amount for non-economic damages in a wrongful death case resulting from medical malpractice, the judge will reduce the award to this amount.

Proving Wrongful Death in California

To succeed in a wrongful death claim in California, the claimant must prove:

  • A death occurred
  • The death was caused by someone else’s negligence or intent to cause harm
  • Survivors have incurred financial losses as a direct result of the death

Navigating a wrongful death lawsuit can be complex, and it becomes even more challenging amidst the emotional distress of losing a loved one. It’s essential for families to familiarize themselves with California’s legal framework and consult with experienced wrongful death attorneys to ensure they’re adequately informed and represented.

* The articles provided on the Stalwart Law website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be used as professional legal advice or as a substitute for legal consultation with a qualified attorney.  

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