If an accidental or intentional act causes the death of a family member in California, you might have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit. A wrongful death suit compensates the survivors of the person who was killed for losses they suffer because of the death. We'll discuss the basics of California's wrongful death law, including who's allowed to file a wrongful death suit, the damages you can collect, how long you have to file your case in court, and more.
In California, a wrongful death occurs when one person (in legal terms, the "decedent") dies because of the misconduct of another person or entity. A wrongful death claim often results from things like:
(Learn about the basics of wrongful death lawsuits and settlements.)
The same act or event can give rise to both a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide prosecution. For example, if Smith deliberately runs over and kills Jones in Smith's car, Smith is likely to face a murder charge. Jones's survivors might also bring a wrongful death case against Smith. How are the two cases different?
The result of a successful wrongful death claim is expressed solely in dollars. The party responsible for the death (the "defendant") will be ordered to pay the decedent's survivors money damages. (We'll talk more about damages in a wrongful death case below.)
The consequences of a murder conviction are much more severe. The convicted criminal defendant can expect prison time, probation, and perhaps an order to pay restitution to the decedent's surviving family members.
The standard of proof refers to how much evidence is needed to prove that someone is legally responsible for a wrongful act. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is the highest standard of proof in the law, and it sets a very high bar for the prosecution to clear.
In most civil lawsuits, including wrongful death cases, the defendant's liability need only be shown by a "preponderance of the evidence." Under this legal standard, the plaintiff (the party bringing the lawsuit) must show it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the decedent's death.
(Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.)
California's wrongful death statute gives several people the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
First priority to file a wrongful death lawsuit goes to:
If there are no survivors in the group with first priority, a wrongful death lawsuit can be brought by anyone "who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession." (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 377.60 (2023)). "Intestate succession" means any person who's allowed by law to inherit the decedent's property if the decedent died with no will. This group would include, among others, the decedent's parents and siblings.
In addition to the people in the first two groups, these people can also bring a California wrongful death lawsuit, if they can show they were financially dependent on the decedent:
(Read the full text of California's wrongful death statute, Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 377.60-.62 (2023)).
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiffs are awarded damages to compensate them for their losses. In a California wrongful death lawsuit, we look to the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) to spell out the allowable wrongful death damages. Judges use jury instructions to educate jurors on the laws and legal concepts they'll apply during deliberations after a civil trial.
Specifically, CACI No. 3921 Wrongful Death (Death of an Adult) says that damages in a wrongful death case fall into two categories: Economic and non-economic. Economic damages can include:
Non-economic damages typically include the dollar values of:
Note that there's no general cap on damages in a California wrongful death lawsuit. But the state's cap on medical malpractice damages does apply to a wrongful death claim resulting from medical malpractice injuries.
Like all states, California has a deadline called a "statute of limitations" on filing a wrongful death lawsuit. California's wrongful death limitation period is two years from the date of the decedent's death. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1 (2023)). If the case isn't filed in court within two years, the family almost certainly loses the right to sue.
There are some kinds of legal claims you might be able to handle on your own. If you have a simple car accident case, for example, with undisputed facts, clear legal responsibility, and minor injuries, you might be able to get a fair settlement going it alone. A wrongful death claim isn't one you want to try to settle without expert legal help.
Even if the facts aren't in doubt, and even if legal responsibility for the decedent's death is clear, coming up with an accurate value for the case—computing and proving all past and future damages—is no small task. You need a lawyer who's experienced with California's wrongful death law and wrongful death damages to guide you through the process.
Here's how to find an experienced lawyer who's right for you and your wrongful death case.