The concept of “wrongful” death is perplexing because anytime we lose a loved one death feels wrong. We struggle with grief, bewilderment, and distress regardless of the circumstances of the death. But if a loved one died because of someone else’s negligence or intentional harm, we may feel additional pain and anger. A wrongful death claim is a type of personal injury case in which a person speaks with a wrongful death attorney for monetary damages for the loss of value of the relationship with a close loved one who died because of another’s wrongdoing.
The National Safety Council reports that in 2017 the number of deaths from unintentional injuries or accidents reached 169,936 people, the highest number ever recorded in the United States. This is a 96 percent increase over the past 25 years. Some of this shocking increase is due to an 11 percent increase in death by poisoning, which includes opioid overdoses, and a 5 percent increase in fall deaths, mostly by older people. Someone dies every three minutes from an unintentional injury such as a motor vehicle crash, a drug overdose, a fall, drowning, and a variety of other circumstances.
California has the highest annual accidental death rate in the U.S. Of these, the most common cause of death is motor vehicle accident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 36,750 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2018. California reported around 3,651 motor-vehicle deaths. Another driver’s negligence played a part in many of these fatalities.
Before the existence of wrongful death and survival laws, if a person died because of someone’s negligent or intentional act, the victim’s family could not sue for damages. A survival cause of action is a claim for the injuries the victim suffered before death. Both wrongful death and survival statutes are intended to compensate a victim’s family or heirs. In California, wrongful death claims allow those close to a deceased person to file a lawsuit against the party who is liable for the death. Wrongful death and survivor claim laws vary from state to state. However, such lawsuits are commonly filed by a representative of the estate on behalf of the deceased or by surviving family members who were close relatives of the person.
Wrongful Death Law in California
When someone is responsible for causing the death of your loved one, California law allows you to file a civil wrongful death lawsuit. A wrongful death action is a civil lawsuit that you can file regardless of whether the person who caused your loved one’s death is convicted of any crime. In fact, plaintiffs often file wrongful death cases in situations where criminal charges are never filed. If your wrongful death lawsuit is successful, you can recover financial compensation for your losses associated with the death.
The right to file a wrongful death suit in California is determined by statute and depends on your relationship to the deceased. You may file if you are the deceased person’s:
- Domestic partner
- Biological or adopted child
- Parents (of a deceased fetus)
- Next living descendent or heir, which may include parents or siblings
- Financial dependent (including putative spouse, stepchildren, or parents)
Wrongful death claims and survival actions are related. Both may arise from the same incident depending on the facts. Under California law, survival claims are brought on behalf of a victim’s estate to compensate for losses suffered by the victim. While wrongful death claims seek to compensate the decedents’ close family members, survival actions compensate the deceased for damages sustained before the death and that he or she could have recovered had he or she survived. These may include:
- Claims unrelated to the death and for which the deceased had the right to sue as of the date of death.
- Claims for the injury that caused the death, provided the decedent survived those injuries for at least some period of time (no matter how short).
When Is a Wrongful Death Claim Appropriate?
If an individual dies as a result of the negligent or intentional act of another, a wrongful death claim may arise. There are many types of incidents that can result in wrongful death claims. These include, for example:
- Car accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Truck accidents
- Premises liability
- Slip and fall injuries
- Defective products
- Medical malpractice incidents
- Construction or workplace accidents
- Nursing home neglect and/or abuse
- Product liability
- Firearm accidents
- Intentional acts of violence
Compensation in a Wrongful Death Claim
Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Loss of love, emotional support and companionship
- Compensation for the loss of the decedent’s financial support
In California, punitive damages are not available in wrongful death cases. However, such damages are possible in a survival cause of action.
What is the Statute of Limitations for a California Wrongful Death Claim?
A statute of limitations sets the time period that a plaintiff has to file a particular legal action. For both wrongful death and survival actions, the California statute of limitations is two years in most situations—though there are several exceptions.
In a wrongful death case the two year statute of limitations starts running on the date of death, and for survival actions, the estate has two years to sue from the date of an injury or six months after the death, whichever is later.
How Can a Wrongful Death Attorney Help You?
Dealing with the death of a loved one is painful and overwhelming. While nothing can bring back a lost loved one, a wrongful death claim can hold the responsible party accountable and help you with financial losses. Your attorney can investigate your case, advise you of your options, guide you through the legal process, and strive to maximize your compensation.