Losing a loved one is devastating, and when it’s due to unforeseen circumstances it’s even more painful. Some of these situations are called “wrongful deaths.” Wrongful deaths occur when a victim loses their life due to the negligence or wrongful act of another party. Wrongful deaths can occur in many different places, under many different situations.
This is an informational page on some of the common questions we receive from families of victims of wrongful death situations.
To help with some of the complex wording of the law, here are some terms to know:
Decedent – This is the victim of the wrongful death – the person who has lost their life.
Pecuniary Loss – This is a legal term referencing monetary or economic loss.
Putative – This word means “commonly accepted or supposed.”
What are some of the common types of wrongful death lawsuits?
- Motor vehicle accidents, causing death
- Workplace accidents, causing death
- Defective products, causing death
- Airplane accidents, causing death
- Train accidents, causing death
- Pedestrian accidents, causing death
- Semi-Truck accidents, causing death
- Bicycle accidents causing death
How do you prove a wrongful death case?
To prove a wrongful death case you must prove each of the following:
- That someone was negligent or committed a wrongful act;
- That the negligence or wrongful act caused the death;
- Damages, consisting of the pecuniary loss suffered by the heirs.
(Lattimore v. Dickey (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 959.)
Who may bring a wrongful death lawsuit?
- The decedent’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession. If the parents of the decedent would be entitled to bring an action under this subdivision, and the parents are deceased, then the legal guardians of the decedent, if any, may bring an action under this subdivision as if they were the decedent’s parents. (Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, subdivision (a).)
- Whether or not qualified under subdivision (a), if they were dependent on the decedent, the putative spouse, children of the putative spouse, stepchildren, parents, or the legal guardians of the decedent if the parents are deceased. (Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, subdivision (b)(1).)
- A minor, whether or not qualified under subdivision (a) or (b), if, at the time of the decedent’s death, the minor resided for the previous 180 days in the decedent’s household and was dependent on the decedent for one-half or more of the minor’s support. (Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, subdivision (c).
Who is a putative spouse under the wrongful death statute?
A “putative spouse” is the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid. (Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, subdivision (b)(2).)
What is a “domestic partner” under the wrongful death statute?
A “domestic partner” is defined as a person who, at the time of the decedent’s death, was the domestic partner of the decedent in a registered domestic partnership established in accordance with subdivision (b) of Section 297 of the Family Code. (Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, subdivision (f)(1).)
What damages are available in a wrongful death case?
“In an action under this article, damages may be awarded that, under all the circumstances of the case, may be just, but may not include damages recoverable under Section 377.34. The court shall determine the respective rights in an award of the persons entitled to assert the cause of action.” (Code of Civil Procedure section 377.61.)
These can include both economic and non-economic damages:
ECONOMIC DAMAGES (California Civil Jury Instructions, No. 3921)
- The financial support, if any, that the decedent would have contributed to the family during either the life expectancy that the decedent had prior to the decedent’s death or the life expectancy of the plaintiff, whichever is shorter;
- The loss of gifts or benefits that the plaintiff would have expected to receive from the decedent;
- Funeral and burial expenses, and
- The reasonable value of household services that the decedent would have provided.
NONECONOMIC DAMAGES (California Civil Jury Instructions, No. 3921)
- The loss of the decedent’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support; and
- The loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations; and
- The loss of the decedent’s training and guidance.
What is not allowed as damages to the plaintiff?
The plaintiff’s grief, sorrow, or mental anguish;
The decedent’s pain and suffering; or
The poverty or wealth of the plaintiff.
How is the decedent’s life expectancy determined?
The jury determines the life expectancy of the decedent. They may consider a multitude of factors, including but not limited to the decedent’s sex, health, habits, lifestyle, and occupation, as well as the average life expectancy of a person of that age.
How are the wrongful death damages divided amongst the plaintiffs?
The jury first determines the losses suffered by all of the plaintiffs and then returns a verdict of a single amount for all plaintiffs combined. The judge will then divide that amount among/between the plaintiffs.