Wrongful Death Actions in California
In California, as in most other states, surviving family members of the deceased may bring a wrongful death claim against those persons or entities that were responsible for the death.
Wrongful death actions in California are often combined with survival actions, as they are deeply interlinked. A survival action is the suit that the deceased person would have brought had he or she “survived” the incident-at-issue – instead, the cause of action is preserved and is passed on to the deceased person’s successor in interest (closest surviving family member, spouse, etc.).
Because of this link between survival actions and wrongful death actions, California wrongful death cases typically involve two actions: 1) the survivors sue the responsible parties on behalf of the deceased, and 2) the survivors sue the responsible parties on their own behalf.
In suing on behalf of the deceased, the survivors seek compensation for the estate of the deceased. Any damages reward for this part of the suit will go directly to the estate of the deceased. Naturally, it is highly probable that the estate plan for the deceased will include the surviving family members, in which case the money award will be an added benefit to those same surviving family members.
Wrongful Death Action
In suing on their own behalf, surviving family members seek compensation for the lost emotional, social, household, and financial support of the deceased. For example, imagine a young married couple: a wife who is in graduate school, and a working husband. If the husband is killed by a reckless driver, the wife will be entitled to sue for wrongful death, not only on her deceased husband’s behalf, but also on her own behalf. The surviving wife can therefore claim compensation for the lost financial support of her husband (who may have been helping pay for her graduate education) as well as for the lost love, affection, guidance, and community of her husband. If the surviving wife has retained a skilled attorney who is familiar with wrongful death actions, she may also want to make a claim for lost future financial support.
Who Is Entitled to Bring a Wrongful Death Action?
California Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60 sets out the persons related to the deceased who may be entitled to bring a wrongful death action. They are as follows:
The spouse of the deceased (the surviving spouse must have been married at the time of death).
Registered domestic partner of the deceased.
Children of the deceased.
Any minor who lived with the deceased for at least 180 days prior to the time of death and was dependent for at least half of his or her support would also qualify.
Anybody entitled to property of the deceased according to the laws of intestate succession.
Intestate succession is a method for determining those who are entitled to inherit from the estate of the deceased in the absence of a will or estate plan. Accordingly, heirs, then parents, then siblings, then children of deceased siblings, then grandparents, and so on, may be able to rightfully bring a wrongful death action.
A representative for the deceased.
Compensation in Wrongful Death Actions
In wrongful death actions, the surviving family members are suing so that they might be – to some degree – compensated for their own serious emotional and financial injuries due to the death of their loved one.
Every individual bringing a legitimate wrongful death claim is entitled to claim the financial support that they have lost due to the death of their loved one. This amount varies based on the relationship of the survivor to the deceased.
A spouse may be entitled to an award of lost financial support calculated out for the number of years that the deceased would have otherwise been expected to live.
A child may be entitled to an award of lost financial support calculated out for the number of years until he or she is no longer a minor. Importantly, if the child can demonstrate that he or she would have required and would have received support into adulthood (due to a disability, continuing education, etc.) then he or she may be able to recover lost financial support calculated out for a greater number of years.
Economic damages are quite wide-ranging; they go beyond just lost financial support. They include benefits and gifts, and even household services. This is important for the death of a stay-at-home spouse and/or parent. For example, for the death of a housewife, the surviving husband and children would be entitled to claim economic damages that include the value of the various household services, such as cooking and cleaning, provided by the deceased mother.
In California, wrongful death survivors can claim various noneconomic damages. As with economic damages, the kind of noneconomic damages that a survivor is entitled to claim varies significantly based on their relationship with the deceased.
A spouse (or registered domestic partner) may be entitled to claim noneconomic damages for the loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations. They may also claim loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, protection, affection, community, and moral support, among other things.
A child may claim, similarly, the loss of love, comfort, care, protection, affection, community, and moral support, but may also make a claim for the loss of training and guidance from the deceased.
Because noneconomic damages are couched in subjectivity and emotion, a skilled wrongful death attorney will be able to convince the jury that the damages you seek are just compensation for the loss of enjoyment of these crucial aspects of one’s relationship with the deceased.
Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations in California
Always be aware of the statute of limitations relevant to your case – if the limitations period runs out, your legal claim will no longer be actionable under the law. The running of the statute of limitations serves as a keen reminder for why it is so critical to contact a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible to ensure that your claims are preserved.
In California, a wrongful death action must be filed within two years (counting from the time of death). Importantly, your case does not have to move forward significantly in that time period – to preserve your claim, all you have to do is have your attorney file the lawsuit before two years is up. Afterwards, you and your attorney can strategize and discuss the best way to move forward with your claim, without the worry of a time limit hanging over your head.
Negligence-based survival lawsuits also have a two-year statute of limitations period in California, but it is worth noting that this period begins to run on the date of the negligent act, and not on the death date. Thus, it’s entirely possible that – in a case where the deceased did not perish immediately after an accident, but after a year, perhaps due to long-term injuries and complications – you may file the wrongful death action on time but may be late to filing the survival action.
In wrongful death cases involving medical malpractice, the statute of limitations is one year from the date that the deceased discovered the negligent act – the act of medical malpractice – that resulted in in death (for example, a misdiagnosis). For wrongful death cases in which the at-fault party is a government employee or agency, then the statute of limitations is merely six months after the negligent act/incident.
Again, the benefit of working with a qualified wrongful death attorney early on cannot be underestimated. Your attorney will work with you to identify potential defendants, to assess the case as a whole, to formulate a winning legal strategy, and to file the necessary claims on time. Because the statute of limitations can vary so significantly depending on facts of the case – all of which may not be known when you first contact an attorney – it is imperative that your attorney be given ample time and opportunity to engage with the case properly.