A wrongful death is any death that is caused without legal justification. Self-defense is an example of legal justification. California law allows certain family members of a wrongful death victim to sue for compensation.

Wrongful deaths can be caused intentionally or negligently. Since insurance policies do not cover murder and since murderers do not usually have significant assets, most intentional killings do not result in wrongful death lawsuits. Occasionally, as in the case of O.J. Simpson, it is worth pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against a defendant who is alleged to have committed murder, but those cases are uncommon.

Accidental deaths caused by negligent conduct are more likely to result in wrongful death lawsuits. Fatal car crashes, firearms accidents, careless actions of construction workers that imperil bystanders, deadly product defects, medical malpractice, and hazardous property conditions are examples of negligence cases in which wrongful death lawsuits are frequently filed.

Who can make a California wrongful death claim?

California law allows specific individuals to bring a wrongful death claim, including the deceased’s spouse (or domestic partner if the domestic partnership was registered), the deceased’s living children, and the children of any child of the deceased if that child is no longer living. If the deceased had no surviving children, the deceased’s siblings can bring a wrongful death claim, as can other relatives who would have inherited from the deceased if the deceased had died without a will.

The deceased’s parents and stepchildren can bring a wrongful death claim if they were dependent upon the deceased for support. A 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 is also entitled to sue for wrongful death.

California law does not permit each person who is entitled to wrongful death compensation to bring a separate wrongful death lawsuit. All potential claims must be joined together in a single legal action. The law does not force people to participate in the lawsuit — individuals having the right to bring a claim can opt out of the lawsuit by asking the judge to dismiss them from it — but anyone who is not a part of the lawsuit by the time judgment is entered will likely be prohibited from bringing another lawsuit based on the wrongful death.

What compensation is awarded for wrongful death?

A person who is entitled to bring a wrongful death lawsuit can seek the recovery of the money they will lose (or the extra money they will need to spend) as a result of the death. In California, economic compensation generally falls into these categories:

  • The financial support that the deceased victim would have contributed to the family member during the victim’s expected lifespan if the accidental death had not occurred, or during the rest of the family member’s expected lifespan, whichever is shorter.
  • The loss of gifts or benefits that the family member would likely have received from the deceased victim.
  • Funeral and burial expenses.
  • The reasonable value of household services that the deceased victim would have provided. In other words, the cost of hiring a maid, cook, handyman, or others to replace the services that the deceased family member will no longer provide.

A wrongful death lawyer will usually work closely with economists and other experts to calculate those losses.

In California, the person bringing the lawsuit cannot recover compensation for that person’s own grief or sorrow that results from the death. However, California law permits the jury to award compensation for certain noneconomic losses, including:

  • The loss of the deceased victim’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support.
  • In the case of a spouse or domestic partner, the loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations.
  • In the case of a child, the loss of the deceased parent’s training and guidance.

The jury can award any amount of noneconomic damages that it deems to be just. When the evidence shows that the deceased accident victim was a kind, loving, and supportive family member, jury verdicts are usually substantial.

The jury cannot award wrongful death damages for any pain and suffering the accident victim experienced prior to death. However, another kind of legal claim, known as a survivorship action, may permit the deceased victim’s estate to recover those damages. If your loved one died due to the carelessness of another person or business, a wrongful death lawyer can help you understand whether a survivorship claim can be made as well as a wrongful death claim.