Wrongful Death Lawsuits in California

Learn about wrongful death claims in California -- what they are, who can sue, and what damages are recoverable.

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In this article, we'll look at wrongful death laws in California, including what California's wrongful death statute has to say about who can can file this kind of lawsuit, and what damages are available. We'll also cover the time limits for bringing a wrongful death claim in California. Read on for the details.

What is Wrongful Death?

In California, a "wrongful death claim" arises when one person dies as the result of the wrongful act or negligence of another person or entity. A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit. It is brought to court directly by the survivors of the deceased person, and fault is expressed solely in terms of money damages, which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent's survivors (assuming the lawsuit is successful).

In these ways, a wrongful death claim differs from a criminal case for homicide, which is brought by the state and in which guilt is penalized with jail or prison time, probation, and other methods. A family in California may bring a civil wrongful death claim to court even if a criminal case is already going forward.

One way to think of wrongful death is as a special type of personal injury lawsuit. If the injured person had lived, he or she could bring a claim for damages against the person who caused their injury. Because the injured person died, however, he or she is no longer available to bring a personal injury claim. Instead, the survivors may bring a wrongful death claim on the deceased person's behalf.

Who May File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

Only certain people are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit in California. The relevant statute specifically allows the following parties to bring a wrongful death claim:

  • the deceased person's surviving spouse and children, including a putative spouse and children
  • the deceased person's domestic partner
  • the deceased person's parents, surviving siblings, or children of deceased siblings
  • grandparents or lineal descendants, and/or
  • individuals who were financially dependent on the deceased person at the time of his or her death.

When there are multiple surviving family members involved in a single wrongful death case, one of the first issues that must be decided is how any damages awarded in the case will be divided.

In a California wrongful death case, the jury awards a single lump sum to a group of successful plaintiffs, and the group must decide how to split the award. If the claimants cannot agree, they may go to court again to reach a judgment on how to divide any award.

You can read the full text of the California wrongful death statute at California Code of Civil Procedure section 337.60, et seq.

What Damages are Available in a Wrongful Death Claim?

A number of different varieties of personal injury damages are available in a wrongful death claim in California. The specific amounts involved will depend on the facts of an individual case.

Damages are typically divided according to whether they compensate the estate for losses associated with the death, or the surviving family members for the personal losses they suffered as a result of the death. Losses that are typically attributed to the estate include:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • medical and hospital bills for the deceased person's final illness or injury, and
  • lost income, including potential income the deceased person would reasonably have been expected to earn in the future had he or she lived.

Losses that are typically attributed to the surviving family members include:

  • the value of household services
  • loss of anticipated financial support, and
  • loss of love, community, attention, affection, moral support, and guidance.

How Long Does a Family Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim?

Like personal injury claims, wrongful death claims in California must be filed within a specific time period (which is known as a statute of limitations in legalese). California law requires a wrongful death claim to be filed within two years of the date of the decendent's death. If the case is not filed in the state's civil court system within two years, the family will almost certainly lose the right to file it at all.

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