In the case of a wrongful death, wrongful death replaces a personal injury claim that a victim could have filed had they survived their injury. However, while wrongful death claims proceed similarly to personal injury cases in many ways, there are critical differences you must understand at the outset of your case. First, a wrongful death claim seeks compensation for the family’s losses, not the damages incurred by the victim. It’s possible to file a survival action at the same time as a wrongful death claim to seek compensation for damages incurred by the deceased’s estate, but these two claims cover different types of damages.
In California, wrongful death claims have the same two-year statute of limitations as personal injury claims, meaning you have two years from the date of your loved one’s wrongful death to initiate a civil claim. However, if you do not discover the exact cause of your loved one’s death until much later, the discovery rule applies, and you have one year from the date you learn the cause of death to file a wrongful death claim against the responsible party or parties.
Proving fault for a wrongful death is similar to proving fault for a personal injury. The plaintiff must accurately identify the defendant or defendants responsible for causing their loved one’s death and that they were intentionally harmful or negligent in some way that caused your loved one’s death. Your Costa Mesa wrongful death lawyer will assist you in gathering whatever witness testimony or other evidence you may need to prove liability for a wrongful death. In some cases, it will be necessary for the plaintiff to consult expert witnesses to prove precisely how a death occurred and establish liability. Medical experts, forensic researchers, accident reconstruction experts, and engineers commonly play pivotal roles in wrongful death cases as expert witnesses.
Wrongful death can happen for a variety of reasons. However, some of the most commonly reported causes of wrongful deaths in California include:
- Motor vehicle accidents. Car crashes are a leading cause of accidental injuries and deaths in California. If a negligent motorist causes a fatal accident due to distracted driving, speeding, a moving violation, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they will face liability for wrongful death and possibly even criminal penalties.
- Medical malpractice. Thousands of people in California trust medical professionals every day to provide safe and effective care, but medical errors are a leading cause of accidental injuries and deaths throughout the US. If your loved one died due to incompetently performed or negligent medical treatment, your family could file a wrongful death claim under California’s medical malpractice laws. These cases involve unique statutes and restrictions, so it is vital to work with an experienced Costa Mesa wrongful death lawyer if your case pertains to medical malpractice.
- Premises liability. Anyone who owns property must make sure that the property is safe for guests, visitors, and customers who are lawfully there. For example, if your loved one died from an accident at someone else’s property, the property owner could be liable for the wrongful death. Success with this type of wrongful death action requires proving the death occurred due to the property owner’s failure to recognize and address an obvious safety hazard on their property or at least warn the victim of the danger before it caused a fatal injury.
- Defective products. If your loved one died from an injury caused by a defective or dangerous consumer product, you probably have grounds for a product liability claim.
- Intentional acts of violence. Unfortunately, California has one of the highest violent crime rates in the US. If your loved one died from an intentional act of violence or as a victim of any criminal act, the party responsible for causing the death is not only liable for wrongful death but also likely faces many years in prison.
If you are unsure whether the cause of your loved one’s untimely death constitutes valid grounds for a wrongful death action, it’s essential to consult an experienced Costa Mesa wrongful death lawyer.
In addition to the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims, California state law also imposes specific restrictions on the damages you can seek in a wrongful death action. First, it’s essential to understand that a wrongful death claim seeks compensation for the surviving family’s losses. These damages generally include:
- Lost income provided by the deceased. The family would need to work with their Costa Mesa wrongful death attorney to calculate the income the deceased could have reasonably expected to earn in the future until retirement had they survived.
- Loss of affection, care, consortium, and guidance provided by the deceased. Essentially, this portion of the claimed damages pertains to the family’s pain and suffering caused by the death of their loved one.
- Lost value of household services and childcare provided by the deceased. For example, if a parent loses their spouse in a wrongful death, they may need to arrange childcare if their spouse typically managed the day-to-day needs of their children.
- Reasonable funeral and burial expenses.
If applicable to your case, your Costa Mesa wrongful death attorney can also help you calculate survival action damages. A survival action seeks compensation for the damages the deceased could have claimed in a personal injury action had they survived. Survival action damages generally pertain to losses suffered by the estate of the deceased, such as their final medical expenses, lost income between the injury and their death, and the pain and suffering they experienced from their final injury or illness, recently approved into California law by Senate Bill 477.
Similar to a personal injury case, a wrongful death case requires the plaintiffs to establish several foundational elements of liability to hold a defendant accountable:
- The plaintiff must determine the defendant they believe to be responsible for the death and prove that the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased that resulted in the death.
- The plaintiff must then prove that the defendant failed to uphold this duty of care in some way. This could be through a direct action or inaction when another reasonable person in the same situation would have likely taken appropriate action.
- The plaintiff must provide clear evidence showing the full scope of the damages caused by the wrongful death.
- The plaintiff must establish causation between the defendant’s actions and the death in question. Simply put, they must prove the death occurred because of the negligent or intentional misconduct of the defendant and not some other cause.
Plaintiffs in wrongful death cases often face significant challenges when establishing these elements of liability. For example, they may need to consult expert witnesses, gather statements from eyewitnesses who saw the fatal event happen, or secure physical evidence that helps prove fault for the death. A Costa Mesa wrongful death attorney can help their client determine the best ways of gathering the evidence and testimony they need to support their claim.
Q: Who Can Sue for a Wrongful Death in California?
A: A deceased person’s surviving spouse or partner typically is first in line for the right to file a wrongful death action, followed by surviving adult children, parents, or siblings. If the decedent did not have any close family, anyone who can prove they were financially dependent on the deceased, the executor or personal representative of the deceased’s estate, or anyone who can prove a valid claim to the deceased’s estate would have the right to file a wrongful death claim.
Q: How Long Will a Wrongful Death Claim Take to Resolve?
A: Wrongful death actions are complex civil cases, and sometimes they can take many months or even more than a year to conclude. The time required to complete a wrongful death case hinges on multiple factors, such as the clearness of the defendant’s liability for the death, their willingness to accept responsibility for the death, and the scope of the damages sought by the plaintiff.
Q: What Happens if the Deceased Was Partially at Fault for Their Death?
A: Some wrongful death claims will bring California’s pure comparative negligence statute into play. If the deceased contributed to causing their death, an investigation would determine their fault percentage. The total case award would be reduced by this percentage, reflecting their shared fault. For example, if the plaintiffs seek $500,000 for a wrongful death but the decedent was found to be 10% at fault, the case award would reduce by 10% for a net award of $450,000 instead.
Q: Do Wrongful Death Claims Need to Go to Court?
A: Most civil claims filed in California end in a private settlement. A swift settlement agreement suits both parties’ best interests and allows them to avoid the stress and higher cost of litigation. However, settlement is only possible if both parties agree to negotiate, and it’s possible for a case to proceed to litigation if they cannot reach mutually agreeable settlement terms.
Easton & Easton can provide the answers you need to your most pressing legal questions regarding a wrongful death case in Costa Mesa, CA. If you are ready to talk about your case with an experienced Costa Mesa wrongful death lawyer, contact us today to schedule a free consultation with our firm.