Wrongful Death Actions
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. A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit. It is brought to court directly by the survivors of the deceased person, or by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate, and fault is expressed solely in terms of money damages, which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent’s survivors.
Filing a Wrongful Death Claim
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 deceased person’s surviving spouse;
- the deceased person’s domestic partner; or,
- the deceased person’ s surviving children.
If there is no surviving person in the deceased person’s line of descent, then a wrongful death lawsuit may be brought by anyone “who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession;” that can include the deceased person’s parents, or the deceased person’s siblings, depending on who is living at the time of the deceased person’s death,
And, if they can show they were financially dependent on the deceased person, the following people can also bring a wrongful death lawsuit in California:
- the deceased person’s “putative spouse” and children of the putative spouse;
- the deceased person’s stepchildren; and,
the deceased person’s parents.
Available Damages 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 they compensate 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; and,
- lost income, including potential income the deceased person 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; and,
- loss of love, community, attention, affection, moral support, and guidance.
Statute of Limitations to file a Wrongful Death Claim
Like personal injury claims, wrongful death claims in California must be filed within a specific time period. California law requires a wrongful death claim to be filed within two years of the date of the decedent’s death.
California Code for Wrongful Death Actions
Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 is the basis for filing of a California wrongful death lawsuit which lets families recover damages when a loved one has died as the result of someone’s wrongful act.
California’s Wrongful Death Lawsuit Types of Damages
Compensatory damages which include both economic and non-economic losses. The period for which such damages are recoverable is the shorter of (1) the deceased individual’s life expectancy at the time of the wrongful act or (2) the life expectancy of the plaintiff at the time of the wrongful act.
Economic damages if financial support the deceased would have contributed to the family during their lifetimes. This includes the loss of gifts or benefits the heirs could have expected to receive from the deceased; funeral and burial expenses; and, the reasonable value of household services the deceased would have provided.
Non-economic” damages in California wrongful death cases can include compensation for the loss of the decedent’s:
- society and companionship;
- moral support;
- training and guidance; and,
- sexual relations.
California Wrongful Death Lawsuit Damages
California wrongful death lawsuit damages can include (but are not limited to):
- funeral and burial expenses;
- amounts the deceased would have earned as income; and,
compensation for the loss of the deceased’s companionship and support.
Punitive damages are not available in a California wrongful death lawsuit. However, punitive damages are available if there is a survival cause of action.
California wrongful death lawsuit code is similar to a cause of action for loss of consortium under California law except for the fact that a loss of consortium applies in situations in which a spouse or registered domestic partner is deprived of the companionship and intimacy of a living partner due to someone’s wrongful act.
California Survival Action
California wrongful death lawsuit is frequently coupled with a California “survival action” which is a claim based on Code of Civil Procedure 377.30. Survival causes of actions are brought on behalf of the victim’s estate to compensate for losses suffered by the victim (as opposed to the family) from the wrongful act.
California Wrongful Death Lawsuit Parties
California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 allows the following family members (or their personal representatives) to bring a wrongful death lawsuit:
- domestic partners;
- children; and,
- grandchildren (if the deceased person’s children are also deceased);
- other minor children (such as stepchildren) who were dependent on the deceased for at least 50% of their financial support; and,
- anyone else who would be entitled to the deceased’s property under California’s laws on intestate succession.
California Wrongful Death Lawsuit Causes of Action
Survivors can bring a wrongful death action for any type of claim based on negligence, gross negligence, recklessness or an intentional wrongful act.
California Wrongful Death Lawsuit Events
Acts that give rise to a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- car accidents (including a DUI driver);
- slip and fall;
- assault and battery;
- murder or manslaughter;
- elder abuse or neglect;
- child abuse or neglect; and,
- medical malpractice.
Heirs can also sue in under a theory of strict liability should a loved one be killed by an animal or defective product.
Statute of limitations for a California Wrongful Death Lawsuit or a Survival Action
The California statute of limitations for both wrongful death and survival actions is two years.
In a wrongful death case, the two years starts to run (accrue) on the date of death. For survival actions, the estate has two years to sue from the later of the date of an injury or six months after death.
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