In California, a “wrongful death claim” arises when one person dies as the result of the wrongful act or negligence of another person or entity. Unlike a homicide case that is brought by the state and in which the convicted offender is penalized with prison, probation or other methods, a wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit brought by the survivors of the deceased person or decedent. The fault of the responsible party is expressed solely in terms of money damages, which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent’s survivors (assuming the lawsuit is successful).
A family in California may bring a civil wrongful death claim to court even if a criminal case is already going forward.
One way to think of wrongful death is as a special type of personal injury lawsuit. If the injured person had lived, he or she could bring a claim for damages against the person who caused their injury. Because the injured person died, however, the survivors may bring a wrongful death claim on the decedent’s behalf.
Who May File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?
Only certain people are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit in California. The relevant statute specifically allows the following parties to bring a wrongful death claim:
- The decedent’s surviving spouse and children, including a putative spouse and children
- The decedent’s domestic partner
- The decedent’s parents, surviving siblings, or children of deceased siblings
- Grandparents or lineal descendants
- Dependents or those who were financially dependent on the decedent at the time of his or her death ( children, stepchildren, parents, siblings, grandparents)
Determining the proper heirs in a wrongful death case can be a complicated matter but it is essential that all the proper heirs be named.
When there are multiple surviving family members involved in a single wrongful death case, one of the first issues in a successful resolution is the division of damages. In a successful California wrongful death case, the jury will award, or an insurer will agree to pay, a single lump sum to a group of plaintiffs, and the group must decide how to split the award. If the claimants cannot agree, they may go to court again to reach a judgment on how to divide any award. You can read the full text of the California wrongful death statute at California Code of Civil Procedure section 337.60, et seq.
What Damages are Available in a Wrongful Death Claim?
A number of different varieties of personal injury damages are available in a wrongful death claim in California. The specific amounts involved will depend on the facts of an individual case. Damages are typically divided according to whether it compensates the estate for losses associated with the death, or the surviving family members for the personal losses they suffered as a result of the death. Losses that are typically attributed to the estate include:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Medical and hospital bills for the deceased person’s final illness or injury
- Lost income, including potential income the decedent would reasonably have been expected to earn in the future had he or she lived
Losses that are typically attributed to the surviving family members include:
- The value of household services
- Loss of anticipated financial support
- Loss of love, community, attention, affection, moral support, and guidance
In California, you cannot collect for pain and suffering in a wrongful death case except in elder abuse cases where a statute specifically allows such damages for the pain and suffering of the decedent before death.
How Long Does a Family Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Like personal injury claims, wrongful death claims in California must be filed within a specific time period (which is known as a statute of limitations in legalese). California law requires a wrongful death claim to be filed within two years of the date of the decedent’s death. If the case is not filed in the state’s civil court system within two years, the family will almost certainly lose the right to file it at all.
Contact us for a free confidential consultation
If you believe that you have a wrongful death claim, it’s important to consult with a skilled personal injury law firm right away. Please contact the California Personal Injury Attorney at the Law Offices of Alex G. Tovarian for an immediate complimentary consultation and analysis of your case.