June 29, 2022


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Wrongful Death Law in California, a Basic Understandng

In the state of California, the law relating to claims for the loss resulting from wrongful death is a creature of statute and it may often be found complicated or even unfounded. You need to understand your rights and those of others when someone you love dies due to others’ actions.

If the death was caused by negligence or intentional misconduct of another person, it is considered wrongful death. This also includes malpractice by a doctor who fails to treat a curable condition in time, or performs a surgery carelessly that results in death. The deceased’s loved ones often have a valid claim after car accidents, slips, trips and falls that lead to unexpected deaths. The same rights follow in the event that an intentional act, like assault and battery, directly results in death.

One of the most conflicting decisions to make in law regarding wrongful death is determining who is allowed, or has standing, to bring a lawsuit. The standing is the right to bring a wrongful death action and that depends on statutes that deal with the order in which the surviving people are entitled to the belongings of the dead. For instance, usually in a wrongful death action the ones with standing are the husband or wife and the kids. Typically, siblings, parents, and other family members of the victim lack standing to bring a suit, but there are complex rules with some exceptions to determine who is able to recover damages that can sometimes allow those people to have standing.

Such instances could be if there are no children or spouse, then the domestic partner may bring suit. In cases where the immediate family is not alive, then it would go to next surviving relative which would be the grandchildren if there were any.

It is correct even if the parents of the deceased are alive, unless either of them or both were supported by the dead. Complicating matters even further the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who’s found by the court to have believed in good faith the marriage to the decedent was valid may have a viable suit.

Damages can be addressed only after standing has been determined. Never forget that damages in these and other personal injury actions can be generally classified as economic or non-economic. Economic damages are intended to cover funeral expenses, burial expenses, and lost support. Damages not affecting economy include the loss of relationship between surviving loved ones and the deceased.

Detailed Economic Damages:

1. Financial support contributed by the decedent to the family during either the life expectancy before his/her death or the life expectancy of surviving loved one, whichever one is shorter;

2. The shortfall of gifts or other such benefits that are anticipated to be received by the loved person from the deceased;

3. Cost of funeral and burial;

4. An estimate of the household services that the decedent would have offered.

In the case of non-economic damages, law to the following limits the recovery:

1. Loss of the love, care, protection, or help from the deceased;

2. Loss of romantic/sexual contact and the enjoyment once allowed or

3. Loss of training and advice that the deceased would have given.

The rules do not permit: any sorrow, grief, or mental anguish of the loved one, the decedent’s pain and suffering, poverty, or wealth of any surviving party.

Statues and case decisions do not permit the recovery of punitive damages in wrongful death actions. This is not the case if the defendant is convicted of a felony homicide connected with the death. (California Civil Code, § 3294(d).) The judge, but not the jury, usually allocates any money to the survivors because there are generally conflicts of interest between the remaining parties. The case Canavin v. Pacific Southwest Airlines (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d512) In the circumstance that more than one surviving loved ones pursue a claim by way of jury trial, the jury’s award will represent a sum for all survivors, which will be subsequently distributed by the court. Usually an agreement between the families is the reason a wrongful death action is settled before trial. If minor children are involved, the court needs to approve the settlement and how much money the kids will get.

All information provided above is simply a review of the general laws of wrongful deaths in California. This should not be taken as legal advice for any case. The law is extremely complex; thus, a trial attorney with the right experience should be consulted when you have questions after such a tragic loss.