A wrongful death claim comes about when a person dies as the result of a wrongful act or negligence of another person or entity. What exactly does this mean? How does it get handled? What are the steps? We will go over all the basics of a wrongful death lawsuit below with a focus on the state of California.
What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
If a wrongful death lawsuit is filed in the state of California, it will be a claim filed as a civil lawsuit. This means it is brought to court directly by any survivors of the deceased person or by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate. Fault expressed in these claims is solely in terms of money damages, which the court orders the defendant to pay the deceased's survivors if the lawsuit is successful. A few examples of common causes of wrongful death claims include vehicular accidents, medical malpractice, and liability due to faulty products.
These claims differ from criminal cases for homicide. A homicide case is brought by the state and could result in the guilty party being penalized with jail or prison time. A family in California could bring a civil wrongful death lawsuit to court even if there is already a criminal case going forward.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?
There are only certain people who are allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The California statute specifically allows these following parties to bring about a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court:
- The deceased person’s surviving spouse.
- The deceased person’s domestic partner.
- The deceased person’s surviving children.
If there are no surviving people in the deceased's line of family, then it is possible for a wrongful death lawsuit to be brought on by anyone 'who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.' This means that the people able to claim a wrongful death lawsuit can include the deceased person’s parents or siblings who were dependent upon them while they were alive. Should the person filing the claim be financially dependent upon the deceased person, there are also the following people who are allowed to bring about a wrongful death lawsuit:
- The deceased person’s 'putative spouse' and children of that spouse.
- The deceased person’s stepchildren.
- The deceased person’s parents.
All of these statutes for people able to claim a wrongful death lawsuit are in the California Code of Civil Procedure section 337.60.
What Are the Damages Available in Wrongful Death Lawsuits?
There are several different types of personal injury damages that are considered in a wrongful death lawsuit in California. The specifics in amounts will depend on all of the factors of an individual case. The damages are usually divided according to how they compensate the estate for losses that are associated with the death or the surviving family members for the personal losses that they suffered as a result of the death in the claim.
The losses that are most attributed to the estate will include:
- Funeral and burial expenses.
- Lost income, including potential income that the deceased person would have been expected to earn in the future (within reason).
- Medical and hospital bills for the deceased person’s final illness and/or injury.
Losses that are most attributed to surviving family members will include:
- Loss of anticipated financial support.
- The value of household services.
- Loss of love, community, affection, moral support, and guidance.
What is the Time Frame to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
As with other types of claims, there is a specific time period in which a family can file a wrongful death lawsuit. This is known as a statute of limitations. In California, the law requires a wrongful death lawsuit to be filed within two years of the date of the decedent’s death. If the case is not filed in the state’s civil court system within those two years, the family will most always lose the right to file it at all. ***Special Note: A Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death matter has a ONE year statute of limitations.
No amount of money will ever bring back your loved one or make up for the heartache and loss, but a wrongful death lawsuit can help with the finances surrounding the death, and in most cases is a welcome relief. With these basics in mind, if you believe that the death of a loved one was caused by negligence or a wrongful act, it’s important to contact an experienced lawyer that can answer more of your questions and help you take the steps necessary to start the process of your wrongful death lawsuit. If you have further questions about filing a wrongful death lawsuit in California, contact the Law Firm of Hathaway, Perrett, Webster, Powers, Chrisman & Gutierrez today!
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