A wrongful death lawsuit is when a victim can sue another entity to receive damages if the victim has suffered the death of a loved one due to the person’s neglect or action. It is officially codified in section 377.60 of the California Code of Civil Procedure. Having to suffer the death of someone you love is the most traumatic, distressing, and heartrending tragedy that you could ever suffer through. When it is the fault of someone else, that only makes it even more painful. Because wrongful death lawsuits fall under the general practice area of personal injury, the Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney is the right firm for you. We serve the residents of both the city and the county of Los Angeles.
What is Legal Liability?
Wrongful death falls under California civil law. This means that it is a lawsuit between two private citizens or entities known as the claimant and the defendant, respectively. In a wrongful death claim, the claimant sues to hold the defendant legally liable for the death of a loved one (also known as the decedent).
Legal liability means that the claimant must prove that some action or inaction on part of the defendant resulted in the death of their loved one. Because it is a civil procedure, the burden of proof falls on the claimant. In other words, they must provide evidence that states that the defendant is legally liable because they are at fault. To do this, they may use various theories of liability, including:
- This occurs when the defendant has failed to exercise caution and/or behavior in a context where they were professionally or reasonably required to act accordingly.
- Negligence per se. This occurs when the defendant failed to exercise caution and/or behavior in a context where they were legally required to act accordingly. In other words, it is a form of negligence that violates a statute.
- Vicarious liability or employer’s liability. This means that the defendant is responsible for the behavior of their subordinates if the actions were committed throughout the course of their employment. It refers to situations where employers fail to control the behavior of their employees.
- Breach of warranty. This occurs when the defendant sells a good that fails the terms of the sale and the design, manufacture, or production of said good caused a wrongful death.
- This refers to when the marketing or advertising of a product fails to state the potential hazards of its use and instead give a consumer a sense of false security, thereby causing their wrongful death.
- Strict liability. This refers to the fact that the manufacturer or seller of these goods is responsible for all harm or deaths caused beyond just the initial customer.
If a claimant files a wrongful death claim, then they must effectively establish that the defendant is guilty under one of these broader categories of legal liability.
What is a Wrongful Death Claim?
Wrongful death is the result of negligence, an intentional wrongful act, and/or recklessness. The vast majority of wrongful death suits are due to simple negligence. It is important to note that the defendant does not need to have criminal intent to be found negligent and to be held legally liable.
In cases where the court finds the defendant acted intentionally, the claimant’s legal team must prove that the defendant knowingly did something that they reasonably believed could harm someone. They likely did not believe that it would result in someone’s death (if so then they would be charged with serious crimes like manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter) but they did know that their actions were potentially dangerous. In cases where the defendant acted recklessly, the claimant’s attorney must prove that the defendant engaged in behavior with no regard for other’s safety.
The damages that are potentially received by the claimant are called compensatory damages. In other civil cases where the defendant is found guilty of malicious misconduct, they may be subjected to punitive damages. Punitive damages are imposed on the defendant as a corrective to ensure that they are not responsible for any more harm. Wrongful death lawsuits, however, do not include punitive damages.
Compensatory damages, on the other hand, are given to the claimant as recompense for the wrongful death. They can be special damages, which include income loss, damage to property, and/or medical bills. They can also be general damages, which include emotional distress, psychological suffering. Some specific examples of special and/or general damages include:
- Medical bills as a result of the harm and death.
- Funeral expenses as a result of the death.
- The loss of the family’s benefits, such as health insurance, Social Security, and/or pensions due to the death of the decedent.
- The loss of the family’s inheritance.
- The loss of the value of services and/or goods that would have been provided by the decedent.
- Damages awarded for “pain and suffering” as well as “mental anguish”.
- The loss of the guidance, protection, care, and/or advice from the decedent.
- The loss of the companionship, intimacy, and/or love from the decedent.
It is crucial to note that damages in a wrongful death lawsuit are awarded for two reasons: to financially stabilize a family due to the loss of a source of income and to provide some measure of relief and succor to the bereaved. The former comprises what is known as economic damages and are more easily calculated based on conventional metrics. The latter, however, is much more abstract. The general consensus is that there is no way to affix a definite dollar amount to the value of a human life, so a wrongful death lawsuit generally seeks more for general damages. This amount is based on previous damages awarded in similar lawsuits.
The Difference between a Wrongful Death and Survival Cause of Action Lawsuit
If the defendant’s negligent acts result in serious injuries but not death, then the claimant may file a lawsuit under California’s loss of consortium civil statute. This means that the domestic partner or spouse suffered a loss of intimacy and/or companionship from their injured partner or spouse due to the defendant’s negligence or action.
Furthermore, under California Code of Civil Procedure section 377.30, the estate of the decedent can file a survival cause of action. This is similar to a wrongful death suit (they are usually filed in conjunction with one another) but the survival suit compensates the decedent’s estate and not their family members. In essence, a wrongful death suit is filed by family members while a survival cause of action is filed on behalf of the decedent. It is referred to as a survival lawsuit because the decedent’s right to sue for damages “survives” their actual death.
Unlike a typical wrongful death suit, however, a survival cause of action may result in the imposition of punitive damages on the defendant. This is why most wrongful death lawsuits are complemented by and run in conjunction with a survival cause of action.
What is the Statute of Limitations?
All California statutes have what is known as a statute of limitations. This means that the claimant has a limited amount of time that they can file a lawsuit to receive either punitive and/or compensatory damages. The exact statute of limitations, however, is governed by which theory of legal liability that the lawsuit is based on and the particular type of misconduct that resulted in the death.
The general rule of thumb is that a wrongful death suit has a statute of limitations that is two (2) years; meaning that the family has two years from the date of the death to file a suit. This is specifically codified under California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1. This is generally referred to as the primary statute of limitations.
It should be noted that in some cases the time limit can be as short as one (1) year. In other cases, the statute of limitations can be three (3) years. According to California Code of Civil Procedure section 340.5, this is applicable in cases of medical malpractice. This is when the actions of a health care practitioner result in the death of a loved one. However, CCP 340.5 also states that the family has one (1) year to file from the date when the harm should have been discovered.
This means that the application of the statute of limitations all depends on the particulars of the case. The details can quickly become overwhelmingly complex and it is important to work with a legal professional. It is advisable to move forward with your lawsuit by contacting a law firm as quickly as possible.
A claimant can always file a lawsuit past the statute of limitations but they run the risk of the defendant’s legal team requesting that the lawsuit is thrown out. In legal terminology, this is known as an untimely complaint. However, a judge will rarely throw out an untimely complaint on their own. They generally do so as a response to the defendant filing a Motion to Dismiss or using what is known as an affirmative defense. This type of defense explicitly states to the judge that the lawsuit is an untimely complaint and as such should be thrown out. Whether or not the judge decides to do so, however, again depends on the particulars of the case and the arguments presented by your attorney.
When Does the Statute of Limitations Start?
There is considerable variation on how long the statute of limitations is based on the specifics of the wrongful death case. There are also various factors that determine when the clock starts ticking for the statute of limitations to begin. In legal terminology, this is referred to as when the statute of limitation accrues (or when the statute of limitations begins running).
In most cases, it begins on the date of harm. In a wrongful death case, however, this leaves a great deal open to legal interpretation. If the defendant’s and/or negligence resulted in a single event that killed the decedent, then the date of harm would be the date of the death.
In cases where the wrongful death was the cumulative result of actions and/or negligence over an extended period of time, then the claimant’s legal team would have to establish when this pattern of harmful behavior began. They would also have to establish when the harm and/or death was discovered (this is known as the date of discovery). It refers to the specific point in time when the harm and/or death became known to the claimant or the decedent (prior to their death). It is also possible to argue that the date of discovery falls on the day that the decedent should have discovered the harm that lead to their death.
For example, if an employer knowingly exposed an employee to harmful and eventually fatal circumstances for two years prior to the employee’s death, then various legal strategies could be employed in the course of the lawsuit. The attorney could argue that the date of harm occurred on the day that the exposure began or on the day that the decedent discovered the exposure that led to their death. The longer the employer knowingly committed the harmful actions, the greater the potential damages will be.
In certain cases, it becomes necessary to conduct an independent investigation. This may entail interviewing various related parties. However, if a person and/or entity wishes to limit their legal liability and refuses to willingly participate in an independent investigation, then it may become necessary to hire a private investigator to gather more information. This is most usually done through the law firm that is representing the claimant and can potentially yield valuable evidence. The amount of damages is proportionate to the level of negligence or action committed by the defendant. This means that if the claimant and their legal team can establish a pervasive and long-lasting pattern of behavior and/or negligence, the damages will be greater.
Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations
There is a notable exception to the statute of limitations in the California Civil Code. It is known as the discovery rule and it applies to the date of discovery discussed above. If the decedent’s cause of death is initially unknown, then state law specifies that the statute of limitations is extended. It begins to accrue once the cause of death is ascertained, usually due to a postmortem autopsy and/or investigation. The exact length of time that it is extended is determined by the judge presiding over the case.
In cases where the claimant was a minor when the wrongful death occurred, they have two (2) years from the date that they turn of legal age (18 years old) to file the suit. This is because under California law you must be a legal adult to file a lawsuit. Furthermore, this extension runs independently of any survival action lawsuits. This means that the estate of the decedent can sue immediately following the death and any children the decedent may have had can wait until they turn 18 to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In a survival action lawsuit, the statute of limitation accrues from the later of two potential dates: the actual date of the injury or six (6) months after the date of death.
There are also exceptions if any of the affected parties have a mental illness or disability and if the defendant acted fraudulently and/or with criminal intent. People with mental disabilities are treated as a vulnerable population under California law, and as such they are subject to different standards. This includes the fact that they may not be competent to file a lawsuit. If a claimant is suffering from this kind of condition at the time of the wrongful death but successfully undergoes treatment to become competent in a court of law, the statute of limitations is extended and they may then file the wrongful death lawsuit.
Furthermore, if the defendant is a public entity, like the state of California, then the family of the decedent only has six (6) months to file an initial claim. The public entity then has forty-five (45) days to deny said claim and the family then have another six (6) months to counter-file a wrongful death lawsuit.
It is crucial to consult an attorney as soon as possible to determine how best to proceed with the case and what legal strategy to take. There are various exceptions to these overall rules and the presiding judge has a great deal of discretion on how to proceed. Ultimately it is the judge’s decision on whether to throw a case out for being an untimely complaint. If the claimant can make a convincing argument for why they are filing past the statute of limitations, then it is perfectly possible that the judge will allow the lawsuit to continue.
To ensure that you have the best possible chance to secure significant damages, both special and general, it is absolutely vital that you retain excellent legal representation. Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney is the crack legal team that can get that job done for you! Call us at 424-231-2013 for a free consultation today.