What Is A Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

In very simple terms, a wrongful death occurs when an individual is killed due to another individual’s or entity’s negligence. In California, defendants can seek compensation for losses related to the death.  

A wrongful death lawsuit is in general not limited by the type of fatal accident that occurred. A lawsuit can be brought for death caused by a car accident, truck accident, motorcycle accident, slip and fall, consumer product, or other wrongful, avoidable death.

Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?

The law limits who can file a wrongful death lawsuit to relatives and dependents of the deceased. In California, you can file a wrongful death lawsuit if you are the decedent’s:

  • Spouse
  • Registered domestic partner
  • Child
  • Grandchild (if the decedent’s child/claimant’s parent is no longer living)
  • Stepchild
  • Parents (depending upon the circumstances)
  • Dependent (typically a minor who resided with and depended on the decedent for at least 180 days prior to their death)

What constitutes wrongful death?

The law is rather broad when it comes to what constitutes a wrongful death. A wrongful death may occur due to criminal activity, electrocution, boating accident, train accident, or bus accident. You may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the death. California, in particular, is a comparative negligence state so the defendants negligence may be apportioned. 

Specifically, in the state of California, a plaintiff must generally prove:

  1. Someone has died
  2. Their death was caused either by another’s negligence or another’s intent to cause harm 
  3. Surviving family members are suffering both monetary and pain and suffering if the decedent lives a period of time prior to death, and
  4. A personal representative for the decedent’s estate has been appointed

The law stipulates that every individual is entitled to a reasonable level of safety. Negligence is, generally speaking, the failure to act reasonably. This failure can often lead to injury or death, even if the negligent individual did not intend harm. If a court or jury finds the defendants actions negligent, they can be held liable for the wrongful death and may be required to pay damages.

It’s important to note that a wrongful death lawsuit is not a criminal proceeding, it is a civil proceeding. The defendant may also be charged criminally for the death, but that is separate from the wrongful death lawsuit. The outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit generally has no bearing on a criminal case and vice versa. A good historical example of this distinction are the trials of O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990s. Simpson was acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but he lost a subsequent civil trial which awarded family members of the deceased $33.5 million.

Another significant difference between wrongful death lawsuits and criminal proceedings is that a criminal proceeding requires the plaintiff to establish guilt with “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” But wrongful death lawsuits, as with other civil trials, only require a preponderance of evidence, which means that the plaintiff only needs to prove that their claim is likely true—that there is a greater than 50% chance that the defendant is responsible. This is further complicated by comparative negligence, but we will not touch on that in this article. 

You can recover both economic and noneconomic damages when pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Laws vary depending on the state, but in California you can recover both economic and noneconomic damages if the defendant in your wrongful death case is found liable.

Examples of economic damages include: 

  • Expenses related to medical bills
  • Expenses related to funeral and burial costs 
  • Recovery of the reasonably expected money the decedent would have earned had they lived
  • Recovery of the financial support the decedent provided to family members
  • And there are survival issues which we cover in a later blog post

If your wrongful death loss is successful, you may be able to recover damages for one or multiple of these economic losses. It really depends on the nature of the case and what your relationship is to the decedent. You may also be able to recover noneconomic damages. This included grief, sorrow, companionship, and affection.

In some instances, the noneconomic damages awarded in a wrongful death case can be significantly greater than economic damages. In a recent case brought before a Los Angeles court, a construction worker working atop a concrete panel fell to his death when the concrete collapsed. His widow and two children brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the construction company. The jury found the construction company’s action in installing the concrete panel was negligent and therefore found the company liable for the death. The decedent’s family were awarded $27 million: $3 million in economic damages and $23.5 million in noneconomic damages. 

Note that in California, in most cases, plaintiffs cannot receive punitive damages as part of a wrongful death settlement. Punitive damages are damages that exceed the simple economic or noneconomic compensation and are awarded to punish the defendant. Sometimes a court allows punitive damages claims in a wrongful death lawsuit but this does not occur that often.

If a loved one has lost their life due to an accident, you may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The lawyers at Penney & Associates can uncover the facts of your case and help you determine whether or not you can pursue a wrongful death claim. Penney & Associates has represented injured parties and their families for over 28 years. Contact us today.

* This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic. For a full review of our disclaimer and policies, please click here.

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