Wrongful Death in California - How to File and Win Your Lawsuit
On behalf of the attorneys at The Law Offices of John C. Ye, I’d like to take a moment to tell you that we’re so sorry for your loss. We know this is a horrible and challenging time in your life, and we’re going to do our best to help you get through it.
When your loved one dies because of the actions of someone else, it’s called a “wrongful death.” Whether the act was negligent, reckless, or intentional; California’s wrongful death law (Code of Civil Procedure 377.60) allows surviving family members to sue for damages. Some of the most common recoverable damages are for:
- Loss of companionship and support
- Loss of income
- Burial and funeral expenses
A wrongful death lawsuit is often paired with a California “survival” cause of action suit (under CCP 377.30). This type of lawsuit is appropriate if your loved one had expenses after the accident but before passing away. For example, if your spouse was in a very bad car crash and received medical care before passing, you would be eligible to sue and receive compensation for those expenses.
And, right now, after feeling the extreme loss of losing your loved one unexpectedly, you might think, “So what? In the scheme of things, what difference does it make if I only sue for wrongful death? It can’t be that big of a difference, can it?”
The truth is that filing both a wrongful death lawsuit and a survival cause of action suit will ensure you’re not left broken-hearted, holding a bill for medical care for your loved one months after his or her passing. It’s challenging enough to lose your love in an accident. To receive a bill for medical care that didn’t work is punishing. Then, what would you do if you didn’t have enough money to pay?
You don’t want that to happen. We don’t want that to happen. Below, you’ll find the answers to all your top questions about wrongful death in California, so you can learn how to file (and win) your suit.
When is a wrongdoer liable for a death?
If your loved one died because of a situation that resulted in wrongful death, you might be eligible to sue for compensation. Wrongful death happens when someone else has shown negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional wrongdoing. Some examples are:
- Car accidents (including any situations such as drunk driving where the driver is impaired)
- Slip-and-fall accidents
- Pedestrian “knockdowns”
- Elder abuse or neglect
- Child abuse or neglect
- Assault and battery
- Manslaughter or murder
- Medical malpractice
Basically, if someone did something (either intentionally or accidentally) that resulted in the loss of your loved one, you might be eligible to sue for wrongful death in California—it all depends on your relationship to the deceased.
Who is eligible to sue for wrongful death in California?
Under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, the following family members (or their representatives) are allowed to file a lawsuit:
- Surviving spouse
- Domestic partner
- Grandchildren (if the deceased’s children have also passed away)
- Step-children or other individuals the deceased may have been caring for
- Anyone who might be entitled to the deceased’s property under California’s laws and regulations
Think of it this way, if your loved one financially supported you (either fully or partially) or if you’re entitled to his or her property, you’re eligible to sue for wrongful death. This means either you or a legal representative can file a suit on your behalf.
What damages can be recovered in a California wrongful death suit?
When you’re thinking about wrongful death damages, just imagine what life would have been like if your loved one was still with you. Most likely, he or she would have added income and/or provided household services.
For example, if a partner works a steady job and mows the lawn on weekends, he or she is benefiting the household in two distinct ways. Without your partner, you feel the economic sting of the lost income. Plus, you might have an additional expense of hiring out the lawn care.
But, what you’ll most likely miss the most is just being with your loved one. Missing his or her company is what’s called a “non-economic” damage. When you ask for damages, you should ask for an amount that combines the economic and non-economic damage that you feel.
Economic damages can include estimates of the following items based on the deceased’s past behavior:
- Income from the deceased
- Gifts or benefits to heirs
- Reasonable value for household services provided
- The actual amounts for the funeral and burial services
Non-economic damages can include monetary estimates for the deceased’s:
- Moral support
- Sexual relations
Can I ask for punitive damage?
Sometimes in lawsuits, a person can ask for “punitive damage.” This is a dollar amount simply to punish the wrong-doer for their actions. Unfortunately, in wrongful death suits in California, punitive damages don’t apply unless the defendant was convicted of a felony homicide of your loved one.
However, punitive damages may be available through a “survival” action filed by the deceased’s estate.
What is a “survival” action?
In a “survival” action, the heirs of the deceased person can sue on behalf of the estate. This is helpful for three main reasons. First, if the accident left your loved one alive and receiving medical care, there are bills related to that limbo period after the accident but before passing away. When you file a survival action, you’re asking for those bills and debts from that period of time to be covered by the defendant.
Second, if your loved one was in a position where he or she was considering filing a lawsuit before the time of death, the estate is now able to move forward with that. This means you can act on your loved one’s wishes (even if your loved one hadn’t started the process of filing paperwork or finding a lawyer). In a sense, this type of survival action is trying to allow the estate to receive any money it might have otherwise received if your loved one were still alive.
Finally, when you file a “survival” cause of action, you can ask for punitive damages. This means you can request a certain amount of money—not tied to any bills or current outstanding debts from the accident—purely because someone else’s actions caused your loved one to die.
What is the statute of limitations for a California wrongful death claim?
In California, the statute of limitations on filing a wrongful death claim or survival cause of action is two years. For wrongful death cases, the two-year time period begins on the date of death. For survival actions, the estate has a two-year time limit starting from the latter of:
- six months after death
- the date of the injury
Let’s take a look at an example. John’s wife, Mary, was walking their dog when she was hit by a car. The accident put Mary into a coma for two months. Sadly, she passed away yesterday. John has two years from yesterday’s date to file a wrongful death suit against the driver. For a survival action, John has a time period of two years and six months to file (since Mary’s death happened after the date of her injury).
What if I’m outside the statute of limitations?
If you’re outside the statute of limitations for your wrongful death lawsuit, don’t worry. There are situations where you couldn’t have possibly filed on time, and the State of California understands that.
Some instances where you may still legally file a wrongful death suit or survival action even though you’re technically outside of the statute of limitations are:
- You don’t learn about your loved one’s death until later. For example, let’s say your adult-aged daughter went missing while she was on a vacation. Unfortunately, two months later, her body was discovered. In this case, your statute of limitations to file any suits would start from the day you learned of her passing.
- You don’t learn until later on that the death was wrongful. Let’s say your partner was out jogging and died in front of a business a couple blocks away from your home. Initially, the coroner thought your partner had a heart attack and died. However, once the autopsy was completed, it was discovered that your partner died from injuries sustained while tripping and falling on faulty sidewalk outside of the business. Because you now know your loved one’s death was wrongful, you have two years from the date of your discovery to file a wrongful death suit.
- You are a minor when your parent passes away. If you are a child, you’re not expected to file lawsuits on behalf of your parent’s estate. Instead, once you turn 18, you have two years to file a wrongful death suit. Your birthdate is the new date to work from when you’re trying to figure out if you’re within the statute of limitations.
How can I file for wrongful death in California?
There’s nothing that can undo the pain and grief you feel around the loss of your loved one. However, at the Law Offices of John C. Ye, we want to help you to make sure you’re not accidentally putting yourself through more stress and suffering than need be. Understanding the ins and outs of law is tough. There are lots of details and cases that prove why a lawsuit will or won’t hold up in case.
That’s why we’re here to help. Let us file a wrongful death claim on your behalf. We can’t undo what’s been done, but we can help with your current worries, represent you legally, and fight for justice.