California Wrongful Death Laws: An Overview

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If you get hurt in an accident caused by someone else's bad behavior, you can sue for any wages you lost and bills you had to pay. But what if it's not you who is hurt and instead is your spouse or parent who provided financial support for you? You don't have lost wages, but you have lost even more including companionship and emotional support as well as financial support. That's where California wrongful death lawsuits come into the picture. You can sue the person or entity that caused your family member to die for compensatory damages.

What is Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

You can sue someone whose wrongful act or negligence causes the death of a family member. The civil lawsuit is called a wrongful death claim and can be brought to court by surviving family members of the person who died. A lawsuit can also be brought by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate.

Anyone bringing a wrongful death action must prove certain elements, including:

  • That a human being died.
  • That the death was caused by another person's negligence, reckless conduct or intentional conduct.
  • That the surviving family have suffered injury as a result of the death.
  • That a personal representative for the deceased's estate has been appointed.

    Read More: Wrongful Death Probate Rights of Heirs of the Deceased

What Is the Difference Between Wrongful Death and Homicide?

A wrongful death case involves someone who has died as a result of someone else's behavior. But that does not make it a criminal case for homicide. In a criminal case, the state prosecutor is charging the person with homicide, and he may be sent to jail if convicted. In a wrongful death action, you have to prove that negligence or intentional behavior caused the death, but that is only to establish liability. If the defendant is liable, he will have to pay money damages to the decedent's survivors.

Note that particular circumstances in a wrongful death case may also support a criminal case for homicide. For example, if someone deliberately ran over your family member, you could file a wrongful death action in California, and the prosecutor could arrest the person for homicide. One does not exclude the other. You can bring a civil wrongful death claim whether or not a criminal case is already proceeding.

The standard of proof is also different in a criminal case. The person bringing a wrongful death case, like other claims in civil cases in California, must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. To get a guilty verdict in a criminal case for homicide, the prosecution must establish their case by a higher standard, guilt proved "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?

Only certain people are allowed to file a wrongful death claim in California. Under Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, you can only bring a lawsuit if you had a certain relationship with the person who died, which include:

  • The deceased person's surviving spouse.
  • The deceased person's domestic partner.
  • The deceased person's surviving child or children or, if there are no surviving children, the deceased person's grandchildren.
  • The minor children (e.g., step children) for whom the deceased person provided at least half of the support.

If the deceased did not leave any of these relationships, the suit can be brought by the person who would be entitled to the property of the deceased person if he died without a will. The intestate succession statutes list those persons who can include the deceased person's surviving parents or siblings.

Types of Behavior Supporting a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

You can bring a wrongful death action for many different types of wrongful behavior, running the gamut from a simple breach of the duty of care to deliberate murder. Claims that are sufficient include:

  • Negligence. 
  • Gross negligence. 
  • Recklessness. 
  • An intentional wrongful act.

There are no limits on the type of wrongful actions that support a wrongful death suit. Wrongful death actions can be brought in numerous circumstances, including but not limited to:

  • Child neglect.
  • Child abuse.
  • Elder neglect.
  • Elder abuse.
  • A vehicle accident.
  • A bicycle accident.
  • A sports accident.
  • A plane crash.
  • Driving while intoxicated.
  • Drowning in a swimming pool.
  • Drowning in an unsupervised beach area.
  • Assault.
  • Battery.
  • Slip and fall accidents.
  • Product liability.
  • Medical malpractice.
  • A dog bite or mauling.

Available Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim

Almost all compensatory damages are available in a wrongful death cases in California. These are damages awarded to compensate for losses rather than to punish someone for bad behavior. There are many types of compensatory damages available in California and the appropriate types of damage claims depend on the circumstances.

Compensatory damages include both economic and non-economic losses. Economic losses will include out-of-pocket losses like funeral costs, burial expenses and lost income including income the deceased person would reasonably have been expected to earn in the future had they not died.

Non-economic losses include compensation for the loss of company, attention, affection, support, love and services. The statutes and case law don't provide any standard for compensating for non-economic losses. The jury may award any reasonable amount after considering the evidence. Curiously, although non-economic losses for personal injury cases do include pain and suffering, these cannot be elements of wrongful death damages in California.

Each family member who has the right to sue for wrongful death can collect for similar non-economic losses. However, the person at fault need pay economic losses only one time.

Time Frame to File a Wrongful Death Claim

California limits the time you have to file a wrongful death case in the same way it does personal injury and other lawsuits – by means of statutes of limitations. California statutes of limitations set windows of time in which almost all civil lawsuits in California can be brought.

The statute of limitations for wrongful death claims is two years from the date of the person's death. Any wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within that period of time. If you fail to file a wrongful death lawsuit within the statutory period, you will likely lose the right to file it at all.

What Is a Survival Lawsuit?

The deceased person's family members can bring a wrongful detainer action against the responsible party. But the deceased person's estate also has a cause of action. These are called "survival" actions and are authorized under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.30.

The purpose of a survival lawsuit is to allow the heirs to sue on behalf of the deceased's estate. It can compensate the deceased person's estate for two types of losses that a wrongful death lawsuit does not cover.

First, a survival lawsuit can seek claims that the deceased person could have brought as of the day of death that are unrelated to the death. For example, if the deceased person had a claim against his employer for discrimination, he lost that claim when he died. But the person responsible for his death is liable to his estate for the amount of the claim.

Another type of claim that can be brought in a survival action is a personal injury claim for the deceased. This can be brought if the deceased survived his injuries for some period of time even if a short one. Unlike a wrongful death action, a survival action can include a request for punitive damage, money intended not to compensate the estate but to punish the wrongdoer.

The statute of limitations for survival actions, like the statute for wrongful death actions, is two years. The deceased person's estate has two years to sue from the date of an injury, or six months after death, whichever comes first.