How are wrongful death non-economic damages calculated?

There are three basic types of damages that a successful wrongful death plaintiff can recover under California law: direct or economic damages, indirect or non-economic damages, and in some situations punitive or exemplary damages. Direct damages are generally the easiest to calculate, being based on information that is easier to calculate such as lost income expectancy. Non-economic damages can be more difficult to ascertain, in part because what constitutes such damages can also be hard for a jury to determine.

Identifying to the jury factors that they can consider to ascertain money damages is one of the important roles of a plaintiff's personal injury attorney in any wrongful death action, which is why if you were considering a wrongful death lawsuit you would be well advised to select legal counsel with experience in this area of the law.

Fortunately, California courts have addressed the question of how non-economic damages can be ascertained. These kinds of damages can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The value of personal services, advice and training that the heirs of the deceased (particularly children) could have expected to have received; and
  • The value of the decedent's society and companionship, especially with regard to a spouse or partner

It is not necessary for wrongful death plaintiffs to prove that the decedent was making financial contributions to establish a value for non-economic damages; the loss of the value of services, including those of children or elderly parents or spouses who are not working, is still subject to compensation even if these services are things like housekeeping and helping children with their homework or supporting them in activities such as membership in the Boy or Girl Scouts.

The anticipated life expectancy of the decedent when it comes to calculating the value of non-economic damages is left to the jury, which can use information such as mortality tables but is not required to rely on them. The general measure of life expectancy can be based on factors such as the decedent's occupation, physical health and other lifestyle considerations.

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