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Wrongful Death Claims in California: An Overview

The death of a loved one is always a painful and unfortunate experience, especially when you know that the incident could have been prevented. The purpose is to compensate the victim’s family members who will suffer financial and emotional hardship as a result of losing a loved one.

When someone dies due to the fault of another person or entity, the survivors may be able to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of lawsuit seeks compensation for the survivors’ loss, such as lost wages from the deceased, lost companionship, and funeral expenses. Compensation can help to pay for these bills which are still present and must be paid even after your loved one has died. Compensation that is awarded from a wrongful death lawsuit also serves to hold negligent parties responsible for their actions.

What is a Wrongful Death Claim?

Wrongful death is a claim against a person who can be held liable for a death. These claims involve all types of fatal accidents from simple car accidents to complicated medical malpractice or product liability cases. Persons, companies, and governmental agencies can be legally at fault for acting negligently (failing to act as a reasonable person would have acted) and for acting intentionally.

The death must have been caused, in whole or in part, by the defendant’s conduct. It must be shown that the defendant was negligent or acted with intentional, willful, wanton or reckless conduct. In some limited instances, a party may even be strictly liable for the death of another without the surviving heirs having to show any wrongdoing by the other party.

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Who May Sue for Wrongful Death in California?

For most wrongful death cases, the spouse, children and parents of the deceased victim are usually able to make a claim for compensation. In the cases that involve medical malpractice, only the spouse and dependent children under the age of 25 can be compensated. Damages may be collected for expenses such as:

  • Medical bills
  • Expenses from the funeral
  • Companionship loss
  • Emotional pain and suffering

A wrongful death claim must be filed by a representative on behalf of the survivors who suffer damage from the decedent’s death (they are called the “real parties in interest”). The representative is usually the executor of the decedent’s estate. The “real parties in interest” vary from state to state. Some of those people might include:

Who May Be Sued for a Wrongful Death?

Often the death can serve as a basis for civil action in seeking compensation for losses and damages. A person can sue for wrongful death in a number of different types of situations. These types of claims can include a broad range of situations including:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Defective drugs
  • Nursing home neglect and abuse
  • Animal and pet attacks and bites
  • Accidents while working
  • Premises liability

Types of Damages

In general, there are three types of damages that may be available to the survivors in a wrongful death lawsuit: economic, non-economic, and punitive.

Economic damages: These include the value of the financial contributions the victim would have made to the survivors if he or she didn’t die, and include the following:

  • Medical and funeral expenses connected to the death
  • Loss of the victim’s expected earnings
  • Loss of benefits, such as pension plans or medical coverage
  • Loss of an inheritance caused by the untimely death
  • Value of the goods and services that a victim would have provided.

Non-economic damages: Although less tangible, non-economic damages often have more value than economic damages. Examples include:

  • damages for the survivors’ mental anguish or pain and suffering
  • loss of the care, protection, guidance, advice, training, and nurturing from the deceased
  • loss of love, society, and companionship from the deceased, and
  • loss of consortium from a deceased spouse.

Punitive damages: These are awarded to punish the defendant for especially bad conduct. In many states these damages are not available in wrongful death lawsuits or not recoverable against certain defendants including most governmental agencies. However, treble damages (which are in an amount equal to three times the actual damages) may often be recovered against nursing homes for elder abuse and death.

Time Limits for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim

When a person dies due to the negligence of another, the surviving family members may pursue a claim for wrongful death. Proving the elements of a wrongful death case are much the same as in a personal injury case.

Every state sets certain time limits, called the “statute of limitations,” on bringing wrongful death lawsuits. The general rule is that a lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date of the misconduct that caused the death of the victim.

Time is of the essence in many wrongful death actions. Preserving evidence and identifying defendants are key factors in many of the underlying accidents involving death cases, and this requires retaining investigators and experts to commence investigations and evaluations as promptly as possible.


If you have experienced the wrongful death of a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligent acts, then you may be entitled to receive compensation for your losses. Call us anytime 24/7 at (844) 612-5800for a FREE, no obligation consultation. We’ll answer your questions and help you determine the best course of action for you.

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