Wrongful death: Who can bring a lawsuit and 4 more facts you should know

Wyatt Zmrzel was 22 years old when he was killed in car accident in California. Within days of his death, Wyatt’s parents retained Penney & Associates and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lyft, the rideshare service.

The deadly accident happened as the Lyft driver, shortly after picking up Wyatt — who turned out to be his first passenger ever — slowly accelerated into the southbound lanes of highway 99 and was struck by another vehicle traveling at freeway speed.

Late last year, after four years of investigation and discovery, the jury at Sacramento Superior Court returned the verdict in favor of Wyatt’s parents in the amount of $6 million.

The case stems, like all wrongful death lawsuits, from an unfathomable tragedy. It is also, unfortunately, illustrative of a wider trend. Fatal car accidents are one of the most common examples of wrongful death cases.

All you need to know about wrongful death lawsuits

To fully understand when you can take legal action after the accidental death of a loved one, it helps to understand what a wrongful death case involves:

  1. What is the definition of a wrongful death?
  2. What are different types of wrongful death cases?
  3. Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?
  4. What do you need to prove to win?
  5. What damages can you seek?

Let’s look at 5 key facts.

  1. The definition of a wrongful death

A wrongful death occurs when an individual is killed due to another individual’s or entity’s negligence. In general, a wrongful death lawsuit is not limited by the type of fatal accident that occurred. The definition is, in other words, very broad and applies to a wide range of incidents. A lawsuit can be brought for a death resulting from, for instance, a car accident, truck accident, motorcycle accident, slip and fall, consumer product, electrocution, criminal activity, or other wrongful, avoidable death.

  1. Common causes of wrongful death cases

Unintentional injury death was the fourth leading cause of mortality in the United States in 2020 (following Heart Disease, Cancer, and COVID-19). Among the more than 200,000 unintentional injury deaths that occurred that year, the CDC reports poisoning deaths ranked at the top, followed by falls and motor vehicle accidents.

For teenagers, on the other hand, unintentional injury deaths make up as much as 34% of the total number of deaths, making it by far the most deadly category. A closer look at the statistics also reveals that as a category of accidents, motor vehicle fatality is the leading cause of death to teenagers, representing over one-third of all deaths.

Since most car accident fatalities are the direct result of another person’s negligence, it is not surprising that such accidents constitute such a large share of wrongful death cases. Whether speeding, driving recklessly, not paying attention, or driving under the influence, the negligent driver can be held liable for the deaths of anyone involved in the accident, including other drivers and passengers.

Other common origins of wrongful death cases include medical malpractice, defective products, truck accidents, aviation accidents, and pedestrian accidents.

  1. Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit

Whether you have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit depends on the law in the state where you live. While the statutes are often similar, they are not exactly the same. In the state of Texas, for example, the deceased’s spouse, children, or parents can bring a wrongful death lawsuit, while siblings, members of the estate, or people named in the will are prohibited from seeking legal recourse.

In the state of California, on the other hand, the >Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 states that surviving family members or the estate can sue for damages when a person dies as the result of someone else’s wrongful act, whether the act was negligent, reckless, or intentional.

Specifically, 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)


  1. What is needed to win a wrongful death case

Again, your state of residence ultimately determines what it takes to win a wrongful death case. However, similar principles tend to apply. The key is, of course, to prove negligence. Although the person you are suing may not have intended to do harm, negligence is a failure to act reasonably. If a court or jury finds the defendant’s actions negligent, he or she can be held liable and may be required to pay damages.

But unlike a criminal case, in which guilt must be established with proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil proceeding. That means it only requires a preponderance of evidence — in other words, the plaintiff only needs to prove the claim is likely true.

A note on evidence

Evidence to prove negligence usually includes testimony from eyewitnesses, experts, police officers, and others. It should be noted that in most instances documents are not admissible without the proper live testimony from those who can authenticate the documents. However, in many instances the actual documents, such as traffic collision reports, may not be admitted in a court of law. These dynamics underscore the importance of hiring a reputable law firm for a thorough analysis so your case can be effectuated.

A second type of lawsuit

In addition to a wrongful death lawsuit, the California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30 also specifies a second type of lawsuit that can be brought against the wrongdoer. The so-called “survival” cause of action aims to compensate the estate for losses suffered by the decedent prior to death. Such damages may include compensation for medical bills if the victim was hospitalized after the accident.

  1. What damages can be recovered

Plaintiffs in wrongful death cases in California can seek both economic and non-economic damages if the defendant is found liable. As the name implies, non-economic damages focus on compensating for damages that cannot be measured in purely financial terms, such as love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, and moral support.

Economic damages, on the other hand, take aim at income loss recovery like:

  • 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

What about punitive damages?

In California, plaintiffs cannot, most of the time, receive punitive damages as part of a wrongful death settlement unless they can prove an exception such as a severe criminal act (a felony, for instance) by the defendant. Punitive damages are damages that exceed the simple economic or non-economic compensation and are awarded to punish the defendant.

Are you looking for qualified, expert help following the accidental death of a loved one?

The lawyers at Penney & Associates help people just like you receive the compensation they deserve. Our lawyers have decades of experience and are experts in wrongful death law. Get in touch today to schedule a free consultation.

* 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.

* 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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