What Is Wrongful Death in California?

October 27, 2020 Posted In Wrongful Death

Wrongful death is a tragedy no family should have to endure. It describes an avoidable or preventable death that results from someone else’s negligence, such as drunk driving or medical malpractice. Although nothing can make up for the loss of a loved one, the California civil justice system strives to make surviving family members whole again by allowing them to bring claims against the parties at fault for the accidents. If you recently lost a loved one in California, you may have grounds to pursue compensation through a wrongful death claim.

Wrongful Death Laws in California

You can improve your chances of receiving compensation for a loved one’s passing with at least a general knowledge of how these cases work in California. Wrongful death is a facet of the civil justice system that comes with special related laws and statutes. You must follow these laws for a valid claim. Understanding how your state handles wrongful death claims can help you ensure a successful lawsuit.

  • Definition of wrongful death. Each state has a slightly different legal definition of wrongful death. In California, Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60 defines it as a death caused by another person’s neglect or wrongful act. It allows certain parties – mainly surviving family members – to bring civil causes of action for wrongful death.
  • Required elements. The courts in California will only agree to hear your wrongful death claim if you can prove, using evidence, that you have all the necessary elements. The main elements of a claim are that your loved one died, another person’s negligence or intent to harm took his or her life, and that you (or other family members) suffered monetary losses because of the death.
  • Burden of proof. The burden of proof during a wrongful death claim (and other civil lawsuits) is a preponderance of the evidence. This is enough evidence to prove the defendant’s liability as more than 50% likely. It is a lower standard than during criminal trials. The burden of proof during a wrongful death claim in California rests with you, the plaintiff.

Hiring a wrongful death attorney can help you navigate California’s related laws. An attorney will have the on-the-job experience to explain your rights, protect them using proven legal strategies, and work around the laws that pertain to your case. Your lawyer can handle complicated legal matters for you to ensure the best possible case results while you spend time grieving with your family. You will not need to worry about your knowledge of California’s wrongful death laws after you hire an attorney.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit

Another wrongful death law that is important to know in California is the rule that restricts the ability to file only to certain parties. Not just anyone will bear the legal right to bring a lawsuit after someone’s wrongful death. Under Code 377.60, this right only belongs to the decedent’s (deceased person’s) surviving spouse, domestic partner, child or issue of a deceased child. Anyone else entitled to the decedent’s property through the rules of intestate succession would bear the right to file a wrongful death claim next if none of these parties exist. This may include the decedent’s parents. If the deceased person is a minor whose parents are also deceased, the child’s legal guardians may file instead.

Even if California’s wrongful death law does not list them as eligible claimants, a putative spouse, child of a putative spouse, stepchild or stepparent may also file if they were financially dependent on the deceased person. A putative spouse is one from an invalid or voidable marriage, as long as the spouse believed his or her marriage to the decedent was valid. A minor will be an eligible plaintiff in California as long as he or she resided with the deceased person for 180 days or more prior to the death and relied on the decedent for at least 50% of his or her support.

What Damages Can Be Recovered?

Damages in a California wrongful death claim seek to make surviving family members whole again after an unexpected loss in the family. Making someone whole again refers to giving him or her compensation for both economic and non-economic damages related to the unexpected loss.

Economic Damages

Economic damages refer to losses that impacted the family financially. A death in the family can bring with it many expensive costs. A successful wrongful death claim will make the negligent or at-fault party pay for these expenses instead of it becoming your family’s burden. Economic damages during a wrongful death lawsuit in California include medical bills up to the time of death, property damages, lost earnings, legal fees, and funeral and burial costs. The value of economic damages during a claim is based on bills, receipts, income and other financial statements.

Noneconomic Damages

California law also enables you to seek compensation for your non-economic damages. These are losses that are not financial but that still significantly affects your family. They include the mental anguish and distress of losing a family member, the loss of that relative’s love and companionship, loss of consortium, grief, and suffering. A jury can award any amount it sees fit in noneconomic damages during a wrongful death claim.

Proving Liability in Wrongful Death

Before you can receive financial compensation for the loss of a loved one in California, you or your personal injury attorney will have to prove liability. It will be your side of the case that has to prove the defendant’s fault for the accident that caused your relative’s death. Common causes of wrongful death include motor vehicle accidents, violent crimes, unintentional poisoning, drowning, defective products and medical malpractice.

A lawyer can identify the cause of your loved one’s death. Then, your lawyer can help you prove liability through evidence such as witness statements, experts, accident reconstruction, medical records and police reports. Your lawyer can help you gather enough evidence to meet the burden of proof for your California wrongful death claim.

How Long Do You Have to File a Wrongful Death Suit in California?

As is the case with all personal injury cases in California, your family will have no more than two years to file a wrongful death claim under the state’s statute of limitations. Unlike a personal injury claim, however, the clock will start counting down on the date of your loved one’s death – not necessarily the date of the accident. Don’t wait to file your wrongful death claim. If you do not file within two years, the courts in California will most likely refuse to hear your case.

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