Wrongful Death Lawsuits in California

An in-depth look at eligibility for bringing a California wrongful death claim, potential damages, and more.

The right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in California might arise when an accidental or intentional act results in a family member's death. In this article, we'll discuss the basics of wrongful death law in California, including:

  • who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in the state's courts
  • "damages" that might be available, and
  • the statute of limitations filing deadline for these kinds of lawsuits.

What Is "Wrongful Death" in California?

In California, as in most states, a wrongful death claim arises when one person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity, including:

As with personal injury lawsuits in general, the defendant's liability in a wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation ("damages"), which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent's survivors (assuming the lawsuit is successful; more on damages below). This is one big difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and criminal homicide cases, where a conviction will be penalized with jail or prison time, probation, and other sanctions.

Another difference to note between criminal prosecutions for homicide and civil lawsuits for wrongful death: In a criminal case, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability need only be shown "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning 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.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim In California?

According to California's wrongful death statute, the following people are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the state's civil courts:

  • the decedent's surviving spouse or domestic partner
  • the decedent's surviving children, and/or
  • the grandchildren of any deceased child of the decedent.

If there is no surviving person in the deceased person's line of descent, a wrongful death lawsuit may be brought by anyone "who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession"; that can include the deceased person's parents, or the deceased person's siblings, depending on who is living at the time of the deceased person's death.

In addition to the above-identified individuals, the following people can also bring a wrongful death lawsuit in California if they can show they were financially dependent on the deceased:

  • the decedent's "putative spouse" (someone who had a good faith but mistaken belief that they were in a lawful marriage with the deceased)
  • children of the decedent's putative spouse
  • the deceased person's stepchildren
  • the deceased person's parents, and
  • the legal guardians of the decedent, if the parents are deceased.

Learn more about who can file a wrongful death lawsuit, and read the full text of California's wrongful death statute at California Code of Civil Procedure section 337.60, et seq.

What Damages are Possible In a California Wrongful Death Case?

"Damages" are the plaintiff's claimed losses in a personal injury case. To understand the scope of damages that might be available to a surviving family member in a California wrongful death lawsuit, we can look to the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI). Judges use these forms to educate jurors on the specific laws and legal concepts they'll be applying during deliberations after a civil trial.

Specifically, CACI No. 3921 (Wrongful Death of an Adult) says that damages in a wrongful death case fall into two categories: economic and non-economic. Economic damages can include:

  • any financial support the decedent would have contributed to the family (with awards of any future support reduced to present cash value)
  • loss of gifts or benefits that the family/family member would have expected to receive from the decedent
  • funeral and burial expenses, and
  • the reasonable dollar value of household services that the decedent would have provided.

Non-economic damages might include the following impacts on the family member(s) bringing the wrongful death lawsuit, according to CACI No. 3921:

  • loss of the decedent's "love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support"
  • the spouse or partner's loss of the enjoyment of intimacy with the decedent, and
  • loss of the decedent's guidance.

Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.

(Note: There's no universal cap on damages in a California wrongful death lawsuit, but the state's statutory limit on medical malpractice damages would apply to a wrongful death claim stemming from a health care provider's error.)

How Long Do I Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

Like all lawsuits, wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific time window, set by a law known as a statute of limitations. In California, the statute of limitations that applies to a wrongful death lawsuit sets a filing deadline of two years from the date of the decedent's death. If the case is not initiated in the state's civil court system within two years, the family will almost certainly lose the right to file it at all. You can find this law at California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1.

For more details on California law as it applies to your potential wrongful death claim, and for advice that's tailored to your situation, talk to a personal injury lawyer.

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