California law allows for bereaved families to recover damages in cases of a loved one’s death. These deaths must have been caused by someone else’s action or inaction to qualify for a wrongful death lawsuit. These damages ensure that you can receive some sense of justice for having been deprived of someone who was near and dear to you. If you are located in the Los Angeles area and wish to file a lawsuit, then the Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney is the right firm to help you. We can increase your chances of receiving substantial financial compensation for the wrongful death of your loved one.
What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Under California’s Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (CCP 377.60), the family of a deceased person may sue for damages if it is ruled that it was a wrongful death. The person who is being sued is known as the “defendant”while the relative who is bringing forth the lawsuit is known as the “plaintiff”. In California legal terminology, the person who has passed away is also referred to as the “decedent”.
CCP 377.60 makes explicit provisions that plaintiffs have the legal right to sue the defendant if they are found to be responsible for the decedent’s death. The financial compensation that may be owed to the plaintiff is known as “damages”. It is absolutely essential that you, as the plaintiff, retain expert legal representation to mount a legal case to sue for these damages. Furthermore, as it is a civil procedure, the burden of proof lies on you and your legal team to prove that the defendant’s actions, or lack thereof, caused the death of your loved one.
Wrongful death cases are caused by negligence, some form of reckless activity, and/or a malicious act. These represent various levels of culpability in the defendant and will result in differing amounts of damages. The most frequent cause of wrongful death is negligence and most wrongful death lawsuits will make the case that the defendant was criminally negligent.
The Types of Damages
Damages that may be awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit include both “economic” and “non-economic damages” (these may also be called “compensatory damages”). They are intended as compensation for heirs of the deceased to make up for the lost value of support they would have received from the decedent if they had not died. It is vital that the plaintiff retain legal representation to ensure that they get the highest amount of damages possible.
There is a specific period that these damages are recoverable for. It is the shorter of either the decedent’s estimated life expectancy at the time of the wrongful death or the plaintiff’s estimated life expectancy at the time of the wrongful deal. The exact length of this life expectancy is to be determined by the jury in civil court. They will be instructed by the presiding judge to take all the various, contributing factors into account, including the lifestyle, health, and/or occupation of the decedent or plaintiff.
Furthermore, California law is somewhat vague when it comes to the amount of damages that the plaintiff may seek. According to the CCP 377.60, it merely states that “just” damages will be available to the plaintiffs based on the specifics of the wrongful death case. This results in a very wide margin of available damages. As a result, a skilled legal team should handle every aspect of your wrongful death lawsuit, thereby increasing your chances of receiving a substantial amount of damages.
What Are Economic Damages?
Economic damages are the most fundamental kind of compensatory damages that can be pursued in a wrongful death lawsuit. They include damages for losses that are objective and verifiable. This means that they can be calculated based on what the losses are for the plaintiff. They can also be referred to as “special damages”.
The most common kinds of economic damages, without any limitation and for past, present, or future scenarios, are medical bills (if the decedent did not die right away), financial support that has been lost due to the wrongful death, burial and funeral bills, any services in the household that the decedent may have given, and the loss of property, benefits, and/or gifts that heirs would have reasonably expected from the decedent before the wrongful death.
Economic damages are calculated based on what the losses will be to the plaintiff. If there are various expenses, such as hospital and funeral home bills, then those must simply be added up and then presented at trial. It is crucial that the plaintiff keep a record of all the relevant expenses in the wrongful death. If the jury rules in the plaintiff’s favor, they will then incorporate these economic damages into the final amount of damages that the defendant must pay.
It should be noted that only “reasonable” expenses will be considered. If the plaintiff throws an overly lavish memorial service or is clearly wasting money on non-essentials, then they will only receive a portion of those costs back in their final amount of damages. Again, there is substantial leeway in California law on how to interpret this concept of “reasonable expenses”.
Future financial support that has been lost due to wrongful death is substantially more complicated to calculate, however. In these scenarios, it is standard protocol that your legal team will retain the services of an economic specialist who can determine what the future financial losses are due to the decedent’s death. These sums will then be presented at trial and the jury will include these amounts in the final amount of damages that must be paid by the defendant.
What Are Non-Economic Damages?
Non-economic damages are distinct from economic damages in that they represent intangible losses. This means that the losses awarded to the plaintiffs are subjective and not readily verifiable. The method of calculating non-economic damages is substantially more complex than calculating economic damages and consists of the presiding judge instructing the jury to essentially use their good sense. They are also referred to as “general damages”.
These general damages are awarded to plaintiffs to help counteract the loss of the value of the presence of the decedent. This loss of value includes companionship, sexual relations, love, care, comfort, protection, affection, moral support, and/or assistance of the decedent. These are intangible values that cannot necessarily be calculated on some objective scale (unlike lost wages, for example). However, the California Code of Civil Procedure still ascertains that the loss of these intangibles is devastating for the plaintiff and that they are reasonably expected to receive some amount of damages for their loss.
Consequently, the upper limit of the amount of general damages that can be awarded is determined by legal precedent. This means that there is no definite numerical limit to how great the number can be. It is rather calculated based on what similar cases in the past have awarded in their outcomes. Furthermore, if a wrongful death case has evidence of significant general damages but the final judgment results in a sum that is too small, California law allows for a new trial to occur in order to collect adequate general damages.
Damages not Available in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
“Punitive damages” are the third kind of damages that are used as a means to dissuade future negligent, reckless, and/or malicious behavior that may have resulted in some harm or injury. They are essentially given as punishment in personal injury cases to ensure that a given tragedy does not occur again. However, punitive damages are not available in wrongful death cases.
California law also does not allow the heirs of the decedent to seek out damages for pain, grief, sorry, and/or suffering as part of the overall general damages amount. This is in direct contrast to other personal injury cases that did not result in wrongful death.
Furthermore, damages given for medical expenses may only relate to the time period between the fatal injury and the actual time of death. In other words, the medical treatment must have been provided only for the injury that resulted in the wrongful death. Any medical expenses accrued prior to the fatal injury, such as for pre-existing medical conditions, are not available in the final amount of damages.
Who Can Sue for Damages?
California law allows for certain family members to act as plaintiffs and file a wrongful death lawsuit to recover damages. These include:
- The decedent’s spouse
- The decedent’s domestic partners, according to California Family Code 297(b)
- The adopted and/or biological children of the decedent
- The stepchildren of the decedent
- The decedent’s grandchildren (if their children have passed away)
- Any dependent who was reliant on the decedent for monetary support
- The decedent’s heirs
Even if it is legally determined that your relationship to the decedent is invalid (also referred to as “putative”), if you honestly believed your legal relationship was valid then you would still be entitled to sue for damages. In addition, any minor who lived with the decedent for at least six (6) months prior to their death and relied on them for at least fifty percent (50%) of their financial support could also seek damages in a wrongful death suit.
Finally, any of these parties may also retain a legal representative to sue on their behalf. This is the most common course of action as wrongful death suits are complex and can be legally intimidating. Furthermore, the amount of damages may vary wildly from trial to trial, meaning that having an experienced legal representative is the best way to ensure the highest possible amount of damages is awarded.
It is important to note, however, that there is a time limit for when plaintiffs may sue for wrongful death. California law specifies that this limit, also known as the “statute of limitations”, is two (2) years. In a wrongful death lawsuit, this two-year time period begins (or “accrues” in the legal literature) on the precise date of the wrongful death.
What Kinds of Accidents May Constitute Wrongful Death Lawsuits
There are various cases of wrongful death that may compel plaintiffs to sue for damages. The most common are car accidents. If the jury determines that the defendant, or operator of the vehicle, drove recklessly or was intoxicated at the time of the incident, then this would constitute criminal negligence and/or recklessness and would result in substantially higher damages for the plaintiff. These car accidents may also include incidents where the decedent was a pedestrian and are referred to as “pedestrian knockdowns”.
It is also possible to sue for damages in what is known as “premises liability” incidents. These occur when a person who is in charge of supervising some designated space fails to provide a functionally safe environment. Their failure may then result in unsafe or fatal conditions. In these cases, your legal team will have to prove that the defendant was guilty of negligence and failed to do their job and/or fundamental duty. “Slip and fall” incidents that result in wrongful death would be included in this overall category. These may happen in a public space, such as a shop, or in a private building, such as an office space or even a house. Furthermore, if the decedent drowned in a pool and the legal team establishes that it was the supervisor or proprietor’s fault, then damages may be owed. Again, these pools may be on private property, a pool in a hotel or apartment complex, or a municipal pool.
If a health care practitioner fails in their duties to protect their patients and said failure results in a death, then they may be sued for medical malpractice. A similar lawsuit may be brought against a caretaker who has failed, usually through neglect, abuse, or some combination of both, to adequately care for someone in their care. If this failure results in an untimely death, then a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed. Caretakers most frequently care for elderly adults or disabled children.
Finally, wrongful death lawsuits may also be filed in accordance with criminal charges for a violent crime. This includes assault, battery, manslaughter, or murder. Even if the defendant did not mean to kill the decedent, if they acted in such a way that any reasonable person could see that bodily harm was likely, they may be held liable. Furthermore, if the defendant acted maliciously, recklessly, or with negligence, then a skilled legal team could argue that both special and general damages are owed to the plaintiff.
The Level of Damages and The Defendant’s Culpability
It is crucial to note that the amount of damages is proportionate to the level of negligence or recklessness exhibited by the defendant. This means that the more culpable the defendant, the higher the damages will be. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that a personal injury attorney handles the case to determine the level of culpability of the said defendant. Most wrongful deaths occur because of negligence. However, there are different levels and California law differentiates between “negligence” (also known as “ordinary negligence”) and “gross negligence”.
California law defines ordinary negligence as actions that do not meet the appropriate level of care expected of a sane and rational person. If a person fails to act within the confines of what would be considered an appropriate response given a set of circumstances, they may be found guilty of criminal negligence. This negligence includes both action and inaction, or the omission of a response, to a particular set of circumstances. In other words, California law sets implicit expectations of how a sane and rational person should act in various situations.
“Gross negligence”, on the other hand, occurs when the defendant exhibits a voluntary, willful, and/or conscious disregard of this level of reasonable care or consideration. It essentially means that any reasonable person would expect there to be serious harm and/or injury to either people or property as a result of the defendant’s actions.
California law also specifically delineates the concept of “malice” in a defendant’s actions. Malice is legally defined as willful intent, without any justifiable excuse and/or reason (such as self-defense), to perform some illegal act that will almost certainly result in serious injury, harm, or death to another person. It is substantially more serious than either ordinary negligence or gross negligence.
Under California’s wrongful death laws, the amount of damages will increase exponentially with each level of culpability. In other words, if a defendant acted maliciously, then the amount will be greater than if they acted with gross negligence. If they acted with gross negligence, then the amount will be greater than if they acted with ordinary negligence. Therefore, building your legal case around the intentions, and therefore the level of culpability, of the defendant is absolutely vital to securing a substantial amount of damages.
Find A Wrongful Death Attorney Near Me
Being deprived of a loved one is a great injustice. As a result, California law explicitly allows for relatives to seek out both general and special damages as a means to offset both the costs of the death and to provide a sense of justice and closure. Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney can help you build a strong case to recover these damages. Contact us at 424-231-2013 for a complimentary consultation.