Sadly, hundreds of Americans are killed while on the road in America each day. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that globally over 1.25 million people lose their lives each year in traffic accidents. Of those, over 37,000 of them occur on American roadways, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Some of these victims die upon impact, at the scene, or hours, days, or weeks after receiving medical treatment. If you or someone you know lost a loved one in a recent car accident, you might be wondering where you can turn for help and what happens next. In many cases, you may have the ability to pursue a wrongful death claim against the person or party responsible for the accident. Because of the complicated nature of California wrongful death laws, it’s in your best interest to speak to a lawyer before you take any steps that may affect your rights.
The Potential for Criminal Charges
Often, when any type of car accident occurs, it happens because one or more drivers failed to drive with proper care. In other words, they acted carelessly, negligently, or recklessly. In some cases, the at-fault driver could be charged with a crime, such as vehicular manslaughter or driving under the influence (DUI). The local district attorney may assess the accident to determine whether to issue charges.
The driver could be criminally culpable if:
- The accident occurred while the driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- The driver drove recklessly or ignored traffic laws and their legal duty
- The driver showed extreme indifference for the safety of others
What is a Wrongful Death Civil Lawsuit?
Whether or not there are criminal charges filed, an independent civil lawsuit for wrongful death could also be filed on behalf of the close family members of the deceased person. A wrongful death claim seeks recovery for damages incurred by the surviving family members for loss of their loved one.
The civil and criminal cases are entirely separate actions, and one may not determine the outcome of the other. A guilty verdict in a criminal charge usually ends with a sentence of prison time, fines, and other penalties the state can impose. On the other hand, a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in a wrongful death civil suit will give the plaintiff the legal right to compensation for various losses.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?
Not everyone can file a wrongful death lawsuit in California. In fact, this legal action is reserved for:
- The surviving spouse of the deceased person
- The domestic partner of the deceased person
- The surviving children of the deceased person
- If there are no surviving people in the decedent’s line of descent, then anyone who would be entitled to inherit property through intestate succession may file a claim
Additionally, if the following parties can prove they were financially dependent upon the deceased, they have a right to file a wrongful death claim:
- The decedent’s putative spouse and children of the putative spouse
- Stepchildren of the deceased
- The deceased person’s parents
What Types of Damages are Available in a Wrongful Death Claim?
Some of the same or similar types of damages claimed in a personal injury case can also be claimed in a wrongful death lawsuit. The specific amounts and types of damages will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Economic losses that can be claimed by a deceased family member typically include:
- Funeral and cremation/burial expenses
- Medical and hospital expenses for the deceased person’s final injuries sustained in the auto accident
- Lost income, including potential income the deceased person would reasonably have been expected to earn in the future, had they had not died in the accident
- The value of household services the deceased provided such as child care, grocery shopping and cooking for the family, care for an elderly loved one, transportation for household members, yard maintenance, home maintenance, maintenance on vehicles, and home cleaning
- The loss of expected financial support
Non-economic losses usually claimed by surviving family members can include:
- The loss of love, community, attention, affection, moral support, and guidance
- Loss of consortium (if the deceased is a person’s spouse or domestic partner)
When Must a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Be Filed?
If you intend to file a wrongful death lawsuit it’s important to know that you have a limited amount of time to do so under California law. If you do not file a wrongful death lawsuit within the given timeframe, you will lose your right to seek compensation.
The law that imposes this time limit is referred to as the statute of limitations, and it provides people two years from the date of the death to file a claim. For example, if the victim did not die until two months after the car accident, the statute of limitations begins to run from the date of the death, not the date of the car accident itself. If the case were strictly a personal injury case not involving a death, the statute of limitations would run from the date of the car accident.
As a practical matter, you will want to call a car accident lawyer with experience in wrongful death cases far sooner. In two years, you can lose so much of what you need to pursue a successful claim—witnesses can disappear, memories can fade, and evidence can vanish. Calling a lawyer right away can improve your chances of recovering compensation and holding the responsible parties fully accountable.
Legal Help After a Car Accident Death
Losing a loved one is never easy, whether you knew it was going to happen or it took you by surprise. If you lost a loved one due to the wrongful conduct of another driver, you have legal rights and can pursue compensation. This compensation is by no means a substitute for having your loved one with you, but it can assist you in getting their affairs in order and finding a sense of justice moving forward. A seasoned lawyer who represents car accident and wrongful death clients can discuss the viability of your case and help you determine how best to move forward.
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