Written by attorney Gerald Carey Sterns

California Wrongful Death Claims

What Is A Wrongful Death Claim?

When someone dies due to the negligence of another, the law allows the victim’s surviving beneficiaries or dependents to file a claim for money damages. Since the victim cannot file a lawsuit for damages, the family or a representative of the victim can file in their place. California law requires that a lawsuit must be filed within two years of the victim’s death. The intent of a wrongful death claim is to compensate family members who have suffered emotionally and monetarily from the death of their loved one.

A wrongful death may be caused by the negligent actions of someone, or by intentional acts that lead to death, such as assault and battery. An individual may be liable, as well as a corporation or other entity (such as a manufacturer or seller of a defective product). A wrongful death may result from any number of causes, some of which might include:

  • automobile, motorcycle, and truck accidents (including drunk driver accidents)
  • medical mistakes
  • airplane accidents
  • boating accidents
  • defective products
  • criminal attacks
  • food poisoning
  • failure to keep property safe (for example negligent maintenance of a swimming pool or other property)
  • work-related accidents
  • death during a supervised activity

What Must Be Proven In A Wrongful Death Claim?

A defendant can only be liable for a wrongful death if it can be shown that the defendant’s negligent action caused the death. The following elements must be proven:

  • a breach of duty on the part of the defendant (for example a manufacturer has the duty to provide safe products, and the driver of a motor vehicle has a duty to drive safely and to follow traffic laws);
  • the breach of duty by the defendant caused the death; and
  • the family of the victim suffered harm (for example loss of income or companionship).

If it is shown that the defendant was only partially responsible for the victim’s death, then the defendant would have comparative negligence. For example if the victim’s own actions contributed to his or her own death, then the defendant would only be partially responsible and the amount of damages awarded would be reduced according to the percentage of fault assigned to the defendant.

What Wrongful Death Damages Are Recoverable?

California law provides for “just" compensation in a wrongful death case, which includes the present value of future contributions from the victim to his family, the value of personal services, and the value of the victim’s companionship. The heirs of the victim may be awarded the following damages:

  • loss of future financial support
  • loss of inheritance
  • loss of companionship, comfort, affection, moral support, and if a spouse is suing, loss of consortium (romantic/sexual relationship)
  • loss of the victim’s care, training and guidance as a parent
  • loss of household services
  • costs of a funeral and burial

California does not allow the recovery of punitive damages in wrongful death actions, unless the defendant is convicted of a felony homicide connected with the victim’s death. The victim’s medical expenses are not recoverable in a wrongful death suit, but may be recoverable in a separate “survival action" brought by the victim’s personal representative.

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