A wrongful death claim exists when a person dies due to the negligence or legal fault of another person or entity. In said circumstances, the lawful heirs have a claim for damages against the at fault party.
What Types of Cases Can Give Rise to a Wrongful Death Claim?
Essentially all types of personal injury actions can also give rise to a wrongful death claim. Some examples include:
- Automobile Accidents:
If a person is involved in an automobile accident and is killed as a result of the collision, the heirs of that person have the right to bring a wrongful death claim. In order for the heirs to prevail, they will need to prove that the driver of the defendant automobile was negligent and that the negligence was a substantial factor in the death of their decedent.
- Medical Malpractice:
If a person dies as a result of the negligence of a health care provider, the heirs of that person have the right to bring a wrongful death claim. All of the specific rules that apply to medical malpractice cases apply, including the limitations on general damages. In short, the heirs must prove that the health care provider that treated their decedent fell below the applicable standard of care and that the negligence was a substantial factor in the death.
- Premises Liability:
Premises liability basically refers to a property owner or operator’s legal responsibility for injuries or death sustained as a result of unsafe conditions on the property. Some common examples include slipping or tripping on an unsafe condition of the floor in any type of store, tripping as a result of the dangerous condition of a sidewalk or parking lot, and unsafe and dangerous road designs. The heirs must prove that the death occurred as a result of the dangerous condition of property and that dangerous condition was a substantial factor in the death.
- Governmental Entity Liability:
Governmental entities are also liable in wrongful death claims. Essentially, any type of case in which a governmental entity—city, county, state—is the defendant, a wrongful death claim may be viable. Examples include a defective or dangerous sidewalk that is owned or maintained by a city or county, a vehicle driven by a city or county employee like a police officer or the negligence of a county or city health care provider. If a person dies as a result of any of the above, the heirs would have a right to bring a wrongful death claim.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Claim?
California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 provides that the following family members may bring a wrongful death lawsuit:
- Domestic partners
- Grandchildren (under certain circumstances)
- Other minor children (such as stepchildren) who were dependent on the deceased for at least 50% of their financial support
- Anyone else who would be entitled to the deceased’ property under California laws of intestate succession.
There are other potential family members that can bring a wrongful death action as well, dependent on certain facts and it is always important to consult an attorney that handles these types of matters to determine if a person is a legitimate party to the lawsuit.
What Types of Damages are Available in Wrongful Death Claims?
- Economic Damages:
Economic or special damages include the financial support the deceased would have contributed to the family during their lifetimes, the loss of gifts or benefits the heirs could have expected to receive from the deceased, funeral and burial expenses and the reasonable value of the household services the deceased would have provided.
- Non-Economic Damages:
Non-economic or general damages basically include the loss of the deceased’s society and companionship, protection, affection, moral support and training and guidance.
Except in certain types of cases like medical malpractice actions there is no limit on the amount a jury can award in non-economic damages.
What is the Statute of Limitations for a California Wrongful Death Case?
For most types of wrongful death cases the statute of limitations will be two years from the date of death. However, there are notable exceptions including but not limited to the following:
- Medical Malpractice:
Medical malpractice statutes are always tricky and, without fail, a qualified attorney should always be consulted as soon as possible. As a general rule, the wrongful death statute in a medical malpractice case will be one year from the date of death. However, there are many exceptions and this general guideline should not be relied upon. One notable exception is when the health care provider is a governmental entity. In that situation, a claim will most probably have to be filed six months after the date of death.
- Governmental Entity Defendants:
In cases where the defendant is a governmental entity there is typically a six month claim time limit. A claim must be filed within six months from the date of death. Again, there are exceptions but a qualified attorney should be contacted right away. The six month claim requirement is only part of the statute and an actual complaint in civil court must be filed within six months after a governmental claim is denied. These issues can be very complicated.
Wrongful death claims by their very nature usually involve tragic circumstances. While most family members who have lost a loved one do not want to think about the legal ramifications, it is always best to seek qualified counsel at the earliest opportunity to make sure that rights are not lost.