A wrongful death claim is a unique type of lawsuit that allows certain family members to pursue compensation when their loved one dies due to someone else’s negligent or malicious actions. This type of civil lawsuit is brought to court directly by the survivors of the decedent. When a wrongful death claim is successful, the court orders the defendant to pay monetary damages to the decedent's survivors.
Note that wrongful death claims are civil cases, rather than criminal cases. A criminal case, such as a homicide case, is something the state brings to court. When guilt is declared in a criminal case, it results in penalties such as jail time, prison time, or probation. Whereas, wrongful death claims are brought to court by surviving family members and, when successful, they result in court orders related to payment. It’s important to understand that wrongful death claims are both different and separate from criminal cases. These cases have different focuses and one does not preclude the other. A wrongful death claim can be brought to court even if a criminal case related to the same incident is in progress.
The State of California has strict guidelines regarding who may file a wrongful death claim. Per California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, the following parties can follow a wrongful death claim:
If none of these parties exist or none of these parties want to file a wrongful death claim, anyone who could potentially inherit property from the deceased person may become eligible to file. Eligibility in this case is based on California estate distribution laws or intestate succession. Examples of parties that could potentially become eligible under these circumstances include:
If you are not a surviving spouse, child, or registered domestic partner of the decedent, it can be challenging to determine whether or not you are entitled to file a wrongful death claim per California guidelines. If you’re unsure about your eligibility, consider consulting with a California wrongful death lawyer who can help you understand your legal options.
A wrongful death could occur due to a variety of negligent, reckless, or malicious actions. In California, some of the most common causes of wrongful death include:
To successfully prove a wrongful death claim, you generally need to demonstrate that the actions of the defendant led to the wrongful death due to either negligence or an intent to harm. In the event that a defective product killed a loved one, you may instead be able to hold a defendant strictly liable for your damages through California’s products liability law.
Proving Negligence in a Wrongful Death Claim
Legally, negligence is defined as a failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself of others. Negligence could lead to a wrongful death in numerous ways. Some examples of negligent acts that could lead to a wrongful death include drunk driving, prescription medication errors, or having unsafe conditions on one’s property.
To prove negligence in a wrongful death claim, you must show that:
Proving Intentional Harm in a Wrongful Death Claim
Demonstrating intentional harm is often the necessary approach in wrongful death claims that involve violence. Some examples of potentially fatal acts that may be intentionally harmful include shooting someone, strangling someone, or purposefully hitting someone with a motor vehicle.
To prove intentional harm in a wrongful death claim, you must show that:
Product Liability and Wrongful Death
If a defective product injures or kills someone in California, the state’s product liability laws generally allow the victim to hold the product’s designer, manufacturer, distributor, or seller strictly responsible for their losses. It is not necessary to prove negligence in a product liability case in California. The fact that a defective product harmed someone is reason enough for liability per California law. However, to have a successful personal injury or wrongful death case, a victim would still need to prove the following:
Many types of defective products could lead to a wrongful death. Some examples of defective products that could lead to death include defective automobiles, defective farm equipment, defective household products, defective medical devices, and defective pharmaceutical drugs.
The damages available in a wrongful death claim are meant to compensate surviving families for the losses they’ve suffered due to their loved one’s wrongful death. Per California law, plaintiffs in a wrongful death case can receive “just” damages for their losses. This qualifier is vague, which means the damages awarded to wrongful death victims may vary widely on a case-by-case basis. However, there are certain economic and non-economic compensatory damages that are generally available in a wrongful death claim, including compensation for:
While a variety of compensatory damages are available in a wrongful death claim, it’s important to note that certain damages are not available in wrongful death claims. The damages in a wrongful death claim are meant to compensate the surviving family member for their losses. They are not meant to compensate the surviving family member for the decedent’s losses. So, damages related to things such as the decedent’s pain, emotional distress, or pre-death medical expenses cannot be recovered through a wrongful death claim. However, plaintiffs may be able to file a survival action to recover these types of damages.
A survival lawsuit allows heirs to sue on behalf of the decedent’s estate. An estate can generally be compensated for two types of losses:
Filing a survival action can help plaintiffs recover compensation for a variety of losses that cannot be addressed through a wrongful death claim. This includes damages for things like the decedent’s lost wages, medical bills, emotional distress, and loss of consortium.
Filing a survival action also opens up the possibility of recovering punitive damages. Punitive damages are monetary damages that are awarded by a judge as a way of punishing a defendant who has acted maliciously, oppressively, or fraudulently. Punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death lawsuit in California. However, they can potentially be recovered through a survival action.
The standard statute of limitations in California for wrongful death claims is two years. This time period begins on the date of the relevant death. The standard statute of limitations for survival actions is also two years. The time period for survival actions begins either two years from the date of the decedent’s injury or six months after their death, whichever is later.
There are some exceptions to these aforementioned rules. If the cause of the decedent’s death was not obvious when they died and became apparent at a later date, this may extend the amount of time the decedent’s family has to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This may cause the two year time period allocated by California’s statute of limitations for wrongful death claims to begin at the time this information is discovered, rather than at the time of the death. Additionally, cases involving the government, such as when a government entity or employee would be at fault for a wrongful death, have a shorter statute of limitations. Surviving family members have only six months to pursue a claim or lawsuit if the at-fault party is a government entity.