Understanding Wrongful Death in California

In California, a wrongful death claim allows the family of someone who has died because of the negligent or wrongful acts of another to seek compensation from any responsible parties.

Wrongful death claims are entirely separate from homicide cases, as the former is tried in the civil courts while the latter is tried in criminal courts. As such, they differ in several key ways. First, while criminal homicide cases are about holding guilty parties responsible for the harm they’ve done to society, wrongful death claims are about holding at-fault parties liable for the harm they’ve done to specific people and their families. If someone is found liable in a civil wrongful death claim, it means they are financially responsible for the consequences of the death they caused. In California, families can file wrongful death claims to recover compensation for damages like pain and suffering and lost future income from liable parties. Wrongful death claims do not result in jail time or criminal records for the defendant.

On the other hand, criminal homicide cases determine whether someone has unlawfully caused another person’s death. This legal process focuses on determining whether the accused individual is guilty of a crime and imposing appropriate punishments if guilt is established. The state prosecutes the accused person to enforce the law and deter others from committing similar offenses. Unlike wrongful death claims, a guilty verdict in a criminal homicide case can result in steep penalties like incarceration.

Furthermore, the burden of proof for each of these types of cases also differs. For wrongful death claims, the standard is “preponderance of the evidence.” To meet this legal burden of proof, the decedent’s family must present evidence showing that it’s more likely than not that the defendant’s actions caused the wrongful death. In contrast, criminal homicide cases require proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a much higher standard. This means the evidence must be so convincing that there is no reasonable doubt regarding the defendant’s guilt.

How California Wrongful Death Claims Work

If someone dies due to another person’s negligence or intentional harm, their surviving heirs can file a wrongful death claim. Often these claims culminate in the filing of a lawsuit against the responsible parties.

The family or the estate must then prove that the defendant’s wrongful actions directly caused their loved one’s death. They must show through evidence that the defendant was in some way to blame for the death. Examples of types of culpable conduct include:

  • Negligence, like in a car accident where the defendant was driving carelessly
  • Reckless conduct, where the defendant’s behavior showed a callous disregard for harm to others
  • Intentional conduct, such as in cases of battery 
  • Strict liability, like releasing an unreasonably dangerous product onto the market

In many cases, the defendant(s) eventually agree to pay a settlement for the losses, often through insurance policies that cover their actions. If the case does not settle, a jury may need to decide whether the defendant is liable for the death, and if so, the amount of damages the defendant(s) owe to the heirs.

Who Can Sue for a Wrongful Death in California?

In California, only specific people are legally allowed to sue for wrongful death. Eligibility starts with the decedent’s immediate family members, including surviving spouses, domestic partners, and children. The rules over who has a legal right, or “standing,” to pursue a wrongful death claim follows the California Probate Code.

There are nuances and exceptions for determining legal standing to pursue a wrongful death case. For example, any minor who lived in the decedent’s household for at least 180 days before the death and depended on the decedent for at least half of their support is eligible to file a claim. This is true regardless of whether the minor is related by blood or adoption to the decedent. This inclusion ensures that those significantly dependent on the deceased, such as foster children, have a right to seek compensation for their loss.

Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations in California

Generally, California’s statute of limitations provides heirs with two years from the date of death to file a wrongful death lawsuit. If the two-year filing window expires, you generally lose the right to file the lawsuit, regardless of the strength of your claim. The court will likely dismiss your case if one is filed after the claim expires, which means you won’t be able to demand any compensation for your loss.

There are exceptions to the two-year statute of limitations. For example, if the wrongful death claim is against a government entity, or against the employee of such an entity while acting in the course and scope of their employment, there are legal deadlines as soon as 6 months after the death. Other case types, such as cases involving medical negligence, can have a statute of limitations that is one year from the death. 

Because of the strict filing deadlines, it is crucial to contact a lawyer as soon as possible after your loved one’s passing. A lawyer can manage all the legal aspects of your case and file your lawsuit within the required time frame. They understand the legal steps that need to happen and can quickly gather the necessary evidence to support your claim. While your lawyer pursues your legal claim on your behalf, you can concentrate on grieving your loss and spending time with your family.

Who Are Wrongful Death Suits Typically Filed Against?

The people or entities you can sue for wrongful death vary depending on the circumstances of the death. Here is a list of parties that are often liable in wrongful death cases:

  • Drivers: With roughly 40,000 car accident fatalities annually, at-fault drivers are among the most common wrongful death defendants. A driver who causes a fatal car accident through their negligent or reckless behavior can be liable for that wrongful death. This can occur when wrongful deaths result from accidents involving speeding, drunk driving, or distracted driving.
  • Property Owners: If unsafe conditions on someone’s property lead to a fatal accident, the property owner could face a wrongful death lawsuit for failing to maintain safe premises. Examples include deadly slip-and-falls, electrocutions, and structural collapses.
  • Manufacturers: Companies are responsible for the safety of the products they put on the market, whether they’re pharmaceutical drugs or motor vehicles. As such, they can be liable when a defect in a product’s design or manufacture leads to a fatal injury or illness.
  • Government Entities: In cases where deaths result from poorly maintained roadways or public properties, family members could sue the responsible government agency for failing to ensure public safety. These entities are also responsible if their public employees cause a death while in the course of their employment, such as driving a city truck or bus.

Starting Your Wrongful Death Claim

Red rose on top of black marble tombstone

Starting a wrongful death claim in California involves taking several important steps to meet all relevant filing requirements. It’s best to consult a wrongful death lawyer who can guide you through the legal process, build a strong case on your behalf, and handle the specifics of preparing and filing your claim.

Filing a Wrongful Death Insurance Claim

The first source for wrongful death compensation in many cases is through an insurance policy carried by the party at fault for causing the death. For example, a driver’s liability insurance pays for fatalities that result from accidents the policyholder causes, while a property owner’s homeowners or general liability insurance should cover fatal mishaps that happen because of hazards on their premises.

For your claim to be successful, you must establish that the other party was at fault for the death. This process typically involves gathering evidence such as police reports, witness statements, and other documentation that supports your claim of negligence or wrongdoing. Your lawyer can negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf to demand a fair settlement. If the insurance company disputes your claim or fails to offer a sufficient amount, your next step could involve filing a lawsuit to pursue compensation.

How to Prove Your Damages in Your Wrongful Death Claim

For your wrongful death claim to be successful, you must provide evidence that demonstrates the other party is to blame, such as:

  • Death certificates
  • Medical records
  • Autopsy reports
  • Police reports
  • Witness statements
  • Accident scene photos/videos
  • Cell phone records
  • Property maintenance records
  • Vehicle maintenance records
  • Product defect reports
  • Emails or other correspondence

You will also need evidence of the personal and financial losses you have experienced as a result of your loss so you can establish what fair compensation should entail. This evidence might include:

  • Employment records
  • Pay stubs
  • Other wage records
  • Evidence of future earning potential
  • Expert witness testimony
  • Proof of funeral and burial expenses
  • The decedent’s medical bills
  • Counseling expenses
  • Family photographs and videos
  • Personal diary or journal entries
  • Cards or letters from the deceased
  • Testimonies from family and friends
  • Birth certificates of dependents
  • Marriage certificates
  • Financial documents

How to Hire the Right Wrongful Death Attorney

Finding the right attorney is essential when pursuing a wrongful death claim. Here are some practical tips to help you choose the right lawyer for your situation:

  • Consider Their Experience: Look for an attorney with extensive experience handling wrongful death cases like yours. An experienced lawyer will have a deep understanding of the law and will be well-versed in managing similar cases.
  • Check Their Track Record: Research the attorney’s past cases to understand their success rate. A lawyer with a strong track record of winning wrongful death lawsuits will likely have the skills necessary to handle your case effectively.
  • Ask for Referrals: Talk to friends or family members who have faced similar situations. Personal recommendations could lead you to a trustworthy and competent lawyer.
  • Read Reviews and Testimonials: Look at online reviews and testimonials from any prospective lawyer’s previous clients. These insights can provide valuable information about the attorney’s reputation and client satisfaction.
  • Schedule Consultations: Most wrongful death attorneys offer free initial consultations. Use these opportunities to meet with several lawyers, discuss your case, and assess their communication skills and empathy.
  • Discuss Fees: During every consultation session, ask how the attorney charges for their services. Many wrongful death attorneys work on a contingency basis, meaning you only pay them if they recover compensation for your case.
  • Trust Your Gut: After meeting with potential wrongful death attorneys, trust your instincts. Choose the lawyer who makes you feel most comfortable and seems best equipped to represent your interests.

Calculating Wrongful Death Damages

White roses on a coffin with man in background

Wrongful death damages is the money that is awarded to the heirs of someone who has died due to another’s negligence or harmful act. These damages should cover the financial losses and emotional impacts resulting from the death, including funeral expenses, lost wages, and loss of companionship. The amount of damages available varies from case to case, and calculating this amount often requires working with financial experts and other professionals.

Compensation Available for Damages Experienced by Wrongful Death

Calculating wrongful death damages involves considering both economic and non-economic factors. Economic damages include measurable costs like medical expenses incurred before the person’s death, funeral expenses, and lost future earnings that the deceased would have provided. Non-economic damages cover losses related to the subjective impacts on surviving family members, including loss of companionship and loss of care or guidance. Attorneys typically work with financial experts and use detailed formulas and life expectancy tables to estimate these amounts accurately.

Economic Damages

In wrongful death cases in California, families can seek compensation for various economic damages related to both the cost of the wrongful death and the contributions the deceased will no longer be able to make to the family. These economic damages can include:

  • Lost Financial Support: This includes the money the deceased would have earned and contributed to their family throughout their expected lifetime or the lifetime of the surviving family members. Financial support calculations consider the deceased’s earnings at the time of death and their estimated future earning potential.
  • Loss of Gifts or Benefits: These account for the gifts or benefits family members could have expected to receive from the deceased. This might include things like special financial contributions on occasions such as birthdays or educational costs the deceased might have covered.
  • Funeral and Burial Expenses: Any costs the family incurred for the funeral and burial of the deceased should also be covered by the at-fault party. These are often significant and include expenses for things like funeral services, caskets, ceremonies, and burial plots.
  • Household Services: The reasonable value of any household services that the deceased would have provided is also recoverable. This includes daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, maintenance, and childcare, which now might require families to hire external help.

Non-Economic Damages

Families can also seek compensation for non-economic damages in wrongful death cases in California. These are losses that don’t have a specific financial value but significantly impact the survivors’ lives. Here’s what non-economic damages could include:

  • Loss of Love and Companionship: This includes the emotional pain and loss families experience due to the absence of the decedent’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support.
  • Loss of Intimacy: Spouses and partners can claim compensation for the loss of the enjoyment of sexual intimacy with the decedent.
  • Loss of Training and Guidance: This accounts for the loss of the decedent’s role in providing guidance, education, and training, which is particularly significant for raising children.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are special damages the courts can award to punish defendants for particularly harmful behavior and to deter similar actions in the future. You generally cannot seek punitive damages in a California wrongful death case. 

However, you could pursue punitive damages in a related type of legal claim called a survival action. A survival action is a type of claim in which the deceased person’s estate starts or continues a lawsuit for a claim the deceased could have pursued if they had lived. This type of legal action involves seeking compensation for the damages the deceased suffered between the time of injury and their death, such as the recovery for accident-related medical expenses. A survival action could allow the estate to recover punitive damages if the defendant’s actions were especially harmful. If you think your loss might warrant such a claim, consult an attorney to explore your legal options.

Factors That Affect Compensation for a Wrongful Death Claim

Several factors can influence the amount of compensation you receive from a wrongful death claim in California, and understanding these factors can help you set realistic expectations for your case. Here are the key elements that typically affect how much compensation is available in a wrongful death settlement or judgment:

  • The Decedent’s Income: A higher income at the time of death often results in higher compensation amounts, reflecting the extent of the financial support the family has lost.
  • The Decedent’s Age and Health: Wrongful death claims can be worth more when they involve younger and healthier individuals, who might have provided many more years of financial support for their loved ones.
  • Medical and Funeral Costs: Expenses the family paid for the deceased’s final medical care and funeral services are recoverable and can add to the claim value.
  • Insurance Coverage: The responsible party’s insurance limits can also affect the payout, especially if their policy does not fully cover the damages.
  • Legal Representation: A knowledgeable wrongful death attorney can also significantly influence the outcome of a wrongful death claim. Skilled lawyers are more likely to secure higher compensation amounts through negotiations or in court.

What Factors Are Excluded When Calculating Wrongful Death Damages?

Red candle sitting on a gravesite

When calculating wrongful death damages in California, the courts specifically advise jurors to exclude certain factors to ensure the focus remains on tangible losses. Here are the factors that should not influence the calculation:

  • The Plaintiff’s Grief, Sorrow, or Mental Anguish: The emotional pain of losing a loved one, while significant, does not factor into the monetary valuation of the claim.

Furthermore, the financial status of the plaintiff, whether poor or wealthy, should not affect a jury’s verdict. While a deceased party’s income will affect the damages awarded, their wealth (or lack thereof) should not factor into the defendant’s inherent liability.

What Is the Cap on Wrongful Death Damages in California?

In California, there is no cap on the total damages that can be awarded in most wrongful death cases. This means there is no maximum limit to the economic or non-economic damages that families can receive for the wrongful death of a loved one. Families can seek full compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, funeral costs, and other financial impacts, as well as for non-economic losses like loss of companionship and emotional distress.

Distribution of Damages Among Claimants

In California, the distribution of damages among claimants in wrongful death cases is up to the surviving family members. Family members who are part of the wrongful death claim, such as surviving spouses, children, and dependent parents, have the right to decide how to divide the settlement among themselves. They might choose to allocate larger portions to those who were more financially dependent on the deceased, like minor children or a non-working spouse.

However, if the family cannot reach an agreement on how to distribute the settlement, the courts can step in. California courts have the authority to determine the distribution of a wrongful death settlement based on the financial needs of each claimant. A jury or judge might look at factors like housing needs, educational expenses, and general financial support to decide who receives what portion of the damages. To avoid court intervention, some families opt for mediation, where a neutral third party works with them to develop a fair distribution strategy.

After the Settlement

After an out-of-court settlement or trial verdict is reached in a wrongful death claim in California, the awarded money goes to the family members who filed the claim. Once the insurance company approves the settlement amount or the court approves the verdict award when minors are involved, the responsible party or their insurance company will issue payment. This payment may come as a single lump sum or arranged as a series of payments over time, depending on the situation. 

Contact a California Wrongful Death Attorney Now

Have you lost a loved one due to someone else’s actions in California? Are you wondering how much compensation you could recover for your family with a wrongful death claim? Contact Casper, Meadows, Schwartz & Cook today to discuss your case. We offer a free initial consultation to help you understand your options, and our experienced attorneys are ready to support you and demand the compensation you deserve. Reach out to us now to start the process and find out how we can assist you.

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