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Wrongful Death Lawsuits in California

Posted on July 1, 2021 in Wrongful Death

The death of a loved one in an unexpected accident, such as a car crash or workplace disaster, is devastating. While nothing can ever make up for a loss of life, filing a wrongful death claim against a careless or at-fault party can give surviving family members justice and closure. It can also result in financial compensation for related bills and losses. If you think you have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit in California, learn some of the basic laws surrounding these cases.

What Is Wrongful Death Under California Law?

California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60 defines wrongful death as the death of one person caused by another person or party’s wrongful act or neglect. In the civil justice system, neglect means the failure to use a reasonable or appropriate amount of care for a situation, resulting in injury or harm to another person. A wrongful act can refer to a crime, the intent to harm or medical malpractice.

Common causes of wrongful deaths in California include motor vehicle collisions, fall accidents, dog attacks, defective products, workplace accidents, medical malpractice, and violent crimes. In general, if the same defendant could have been held liable in a personal injury action brought by the victim had he or she lived, surviving loved ones will have grounds for a wrongful death case.

What Elements Must Be Proven?

In a wrongful death lawsuit – as in any personal injury case – the burden of proof rests with the filing party (plaintiff). The burden of proof, or required evidentiary standard, is a preponderance of the evidence. This is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is more likely than not responsible for the decedent’s death. This is a marked difference from a criminal case, where the prosecutor must establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Most wrongful death claims in California are based on the legal theory of negligence. To prove negligence, a plaintiff’s Los Angeles wrongful death lawyer must show evidence of four elements: 1) the defendant owed the decedent a duty of care (an obligation to act reasonably), 2) the defendant breached this duty, 3) the breach of duty caused or significantly contributed to the fatal injury, and 4) the family or estate suffered compensable damages.

Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Suit?

In California, only certain people who were related to or financially dependent upon the decedent are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. These parties include the deceased person’s surviving spouse or domestic partner, surviving children, or surviving grandchildren of deceased children. If these parties do not exist, anyone who would be entitled to inherit from the decedent by intestate succession may file.

What Is the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is a law that places a deadline on a plaintiff’s right to file a lawsuit in the civil courts. In California, the statute of limitations on a wrongful death case is two years from the date of the death, in most cases. With only a few exceptions, if you fail to file a lawsuit within your two-year window, you will lose the right to file at all.

What Damages Are Available for Wrongful Death?

Damages is the legal term for the financial compensation that may be awarded to surviving beneficiaries in a successful wrongful death lawsuit. In California, a plaintiff may be able to recover damages for the following losses:

  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Wages the decedent would have made
  • Lost gifts or benefits
  • The value of household services
  • Lost love, affection, companionship and care

Some wrongful death lawsuits in California are combined with survival actions. While a wrongful death lawsuit pays beneficiaries for their losses, a survival action is brought on behalf of the decedent’s estate. A survival action could hold a defendant accountable for losses such as the decedent’s medical expenses, property repairs and punitive damages.

For more information about a potential wrongful death lawsuit in California, contact Rose, Klein & Marias, LLP for a free consultation in Los Angeles.