California Wrongful Death
California wrongful death claim is filed when there is a negligent or intentional act which has caused the loss of life. The “act” can be drunk driving, careless operation of a motor vehicle, failure to maintain a premises, creating a hazard, or a defective product.
California Wrongful Death Claim
California wrongful death claim is a lawsuit that is filed when a party is responsible for the death of another and that party does not have a lawful excuse for causing the death. California state law defines wrongful death as a fatality caused by “the wrongful act or neglect of another.”
A California wrongful death claim can be the result of an intentional act such as murder, manslaughter, and other deliberate or reckless conduct. However, California courts do allow a defense for intentional acts when it is a justifiable homicide – killing in self-defense – that is not considered to be a wrongful act. When a fatality is caused intentionally, as in the case of murder, a California wrongful death claim falls under the umbrella of intentional torts.
Since insurance carriers generally do not cover losses caused by intentional torts, most people do not pursue a California wrongful death claim that is caused intentionally unless the person being sued has substantial income or assets pay a judgment.
A California wrongful death claim can occur if an individual is found liable for the death of another and that individual’s negligent conduct was a substantial factor in causing the death. Negligent conduct is careless conduct or conduct that was not intentional. A majority of California wrongful death claims are the result of people driving carelessly. This includes:
- Running a red light or coasting through a stop sign;
- Failure to obey traffic signals;
- Excessive lane changing or weaving in and out of traffic;
- Driving at an unsafe speed or in excessive of the speed limit;
- Eating or drinking while driving; and,
- Use of a cellphone to talk, text or take pictures while driving.
Your Insurance Carrier
Your insurance carrier will cover negligent acts up to the policy limits – the maximum amount of coverage selected by you, the policyholder. Any excess award (over the policy limits) will be paid by you. Some drivers may have an umbrella policy in their homeowner’s policy which may pay compensation for a loss caused by negligent driving. Be sure to check your homeowner’s policy to see if you are covered for any excess award that may be awarded.
Failure to Maintain a Safe Premises
Your homeowner’s insurance policy is a premises liability insurance that typically provides coverage for a California wrongful death claim resulting from negligence acts committed in your home. Business owners have premises liability insurance that provides coverage for a store, office, commercial structure, or residential building. Homeowners become liable for an injury when they invite others into their home and business owners become liable for injuries when they open their stores or offices for customers. If there is a fatality that could have been prevented, the property owner or manger can be held responsible for that person’s death.
A California wrongful death claim can be a products liability lawsuit when the fatality is caused by negligence design, manufacture, or testing of a product. Products liability includes pharmaceuticals that are placed on the market without adequate testing; the consumption of tainted food that was improperly prepared or not adequately inspected; and vehicles or other equipment that are poorly designed or manufactured with a defect.
A California wrongful death claim can occur if a person’s death results from exposure to a toxic substance.
California Wrongful Death Lawsuit
A California wrongful death claim lawsuit is an action brought by the deceased person’s heirs or family members who filed a claim for compensation for their losses that resulted from another person’s wrongful death. The California wrongful death claim can be pursued in court by filing a lawsuit against the person(s) or entities that caused the fatality. A California wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action that involves a plaintiff and defendants. Civil actions cannot seek imprisonment or other punishment as a remedy for wrongful conduct. Instead, they seek an award of monetary damages to compensate for a loss. The only exception to this rule is the award of punitive damages.
A California wrongful death claim compensates individuals for their losses due to another person’s death. A survivorship claim compensates the decedent’s estate for losses or expenses that the deceased person incurred prior to passing and as a result of the wrongful or negligent conduct that caused the death. This includes: ambulance fees, medical expenses, and loss of earnings during hospitalization. You cannot seek damages for the deceased’s pain and suffering unless the loss was caused due to abuse or neglect in a nursing home or other dependent care facility. Expenses the estate incurs as a result of or after death, such as funeral and burial expenses, must usually be brought as part of a wrongful death claim rather than a survivorship claim.
In California, those entitled to bring a claim for a wrongful death are the people who would be entitled to inherit from the decedent in the absence of a will, as well as the personal representative of the deceased’s estate. This can be:
- The decedent’s spouse;
- The decedent’s registered domestic partner;
- The decedent’s children or the child of any child that is no longer living;
- The decedent’s stepchildren if they were dependent upon the deceased for support;
- The decedent’s parents if they were dependent upon the deceased for support; and,
- Any minor who lived with the deceased for more than 180 days prior to the deceased’s death and who depended on the deceased for at least one-half of his or her support.
Any person bringing a wrongful death lawsuit must join all other persons who may be entitled to compensation unless those persons “opt out” by seeking dismissal from the suit. Any person who is not a party to the lawsuit when judgment is entered will usually be barred from seeking compensation.
California does not have a “cap” or limit on the amount of money a jury can award in a wrongful death action. Compensation that is awarded is generally divided into two categories: economic losses and noneconomic damages.
Each person making a wrongful death claim who was dependent upon the deceased for financial support is entitled to recover the present value of the support that person will lose because of their loved one’s demise.
“Present value” is the sum of money that would need to be invested today to produce the same amount of financial support the deceased would have provided if the deceased had lived a normal lifespan.
A spouse is generally entitled to an award of the financial support that he or she would have received from the deceased spouse until the end of the deceased’s normal life expectancy (or the end of the surviving spouse’s normal life expectancy, if it is shorter). A minor child is generally entitled to an award of lost support until the child reaches adulthood.
If a child can prove that support would have continued into adulthood (while pursuing a higher education, for example), the child may be entitled to recover the present value of lost support for the length of time the support would have been provided.
Economic damages also include the value of gifts or benefits the person making the claim would have received from the deceased during the course of the deceased’s normal life expectancy.
Finally, economic damages include the value of household services the deceased provided. If the deceased cooked daily meals for the surviving spouse and cleaned the house, for example, the value of comparable cooking and cleaning services can be recovered as economic damages.
As noted above, the deceased’s estate can bring or join a claim to recover funeral and burial expenses and other financial losses that the estate experienced as a result of their loved one’s death.
States use different phrases to describe the noneconomic damages that can be recovered, but the underlying concepts tend to be similar. Noneconomic damages for wrongful death in California compensate people for three categories of losses:
- The loss of the departed’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support.
- In situations involving a spouse or domestic partner, the loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations with the deceased.
- Primarily in the case of a child, the loss of the training and guidance that the deceased would have provided.
It is difficult to place a dollar value on the loss of love and companionship. The only guidance provided to juries in California is that the compensation should be “just.” It is up to the jury to decide what is just. California’s standard jury instruction for wrongful death actions advises juries not to award damages for any grief, sorrow, or mental anguish that the person bringing the claim experienced as a result of their loss.
Punitive damages are awarded to punish the wrongdoer rather than to compensate for a loss. While California prohibits an award of punitive damages for wrongful death unless a lawsuit is commenced against a defendant who was convicted of felony murder.
A California wrongful death claim must be filed within 2 years after the date of death. If suit is not filed before the statute of limitations expires, you will lose your right so seek compensation. The statute of limitations for filing a survivorship lawsuit based on negligence is also 2 years, but that time period is measured from the date of the negligent act rather than the date the victim died.
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