Every day without exception, courts across California hear and decide hundreds of wrongful death cases. A precious family member departing and leaving their loved ones behind is a painful experience for everyone. However, the pain of loss is even more excruciating when the death is untimely and a result of someone else’s negligence. It brings with itself the knowledge that the decedent could still be happily living their life only if the perpetrator had been just a bit more careful.
But, no matter how much a defendant regrets their carelessness or how much the loved ones grieve, death is permanent. The only solace for most people is that the courts can still provide justice for the wrong that has been done. This justice comes either in the form of punishment for the wrongdoers or as compensation for the claimants.
Wrongful death as a type of legal suit falls under the wide umbrella of personal injury law. This means that the parties claiming that a wrongful death has occurred will receive justice in the form of compensation from the defendant. In California, the legislature has specifically defined what wrongful death is and how the parties involved can seek justice under the applicable statute.
We will look at what constitutes a wrongful death, how many types of deaths can be claimed as wrongful and what laws govern them. “Who can claim?”, “how wrongful death is proved” and “what damages are available” will also be covered.
What Makes a Death “Wrongful” In California
According to Section 337.60 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, a “wrongful death” has been defined as follows. A person is said to have suffered a wrongful death when the cause of death was another person’s negligence or wrongful act. Though the definition may slightly vary across different states, the underlying principle is the same. A wrongful death is the untimely passing of a person who might have gone to live several years if it weren’t for unfavorable and unforeseen circumstances.
In the general sense, wrongful deaths could be easily avoided if the perpetrator had taken due care wherever expected. However, defendants in these cases neglect their duties, thereby causing the death of a victim.
Deaths and killings are matters that are usually covered by the criminal law so one would expect wrongful death to fall under the same. Contrary to expectation, wrongful deaths are governed by civil law. This is because this form of incident lacks one extremely important factor that makes causing death a criminal wrong- intention. In a wrongful death, the defendant does not commit a negligent act with the intent to cause death.
Burden of Proof
In a criminal case, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused. On the other hand, in civil proceedings, the burden to prove that a wrongful death claim is false lies on the defendant. However, similar burden of proof to show that the claim is true lies on the plaintiff as well. It tends to differ with every uniue case. Additionally, in such cases, the claimant’s version of truth is generally considered to have higher chances of being true rather than the defendant’s truth.
If the defendant is found to have caused a wrongful death, they are not sentenced to prison or awarded any other criminal sanction. They pay a sum of money to the claimant(s) as compensation for the financial losses suffered.
Types of Wrongful Deaths
Though all wrongful deaths are caused due to the same reason- due to wrongful behavior or negligence, the type of act creates a differentiation. For example- wrongful deaths caused on highways or in the public are different from deaths caused in other situations like workplace accidents. Why? This is because the extent of negligence and the type of act committed are different.
Identifying the kind of wrongful death that a loved one has suffered is extremely important to solidify a case. This makes it easier to clearly recognize areas where the wrongdoer fell short of giving due attention and ensuring they didn’t cause harm to an unsuspecting person. From the court’s perspective, the broad range of wrongful deaths allows them greater flexibility in accommodating evolving cases. On the other hand, the claimants can rest assured that their claim will lie in a recognized subhead.
Car accidents are the leading reason for thousands of fatalities every year. Though not all motor vehicle accidents are a result of negligence on the part of any person, a considerable fraction is. Since there is a huge inflow of cases related to traffic violations and the claims arising from them, it becomes especially finicky to prove wrongful death in such circumstances. However, this does not mean it is impossible to claim damages from such an incident. Experienced lawyers know exactly what to look for and collect evidence that supports their claim.
Of all the reasons for car accidents, drunk driving stands at the forefront. Since drunk driving is a punishable offense in itself, it becomes easier to prove that a wrongful death resulted due to the same. Traffic accidents caused due to drunk driving are proven with help from the medical record of the perpetrator, which first responders like police or medics collect after the incident.
Unlike driving in an inebriated state, negligence while driving is harder to prove. This is because the defendant usually insists that they took due care of their vehicle. Previous records also come into play in this case and may weaken a claim if the defendant is clean.
Breaking Traffic Laws
Running the red lights is punishable and drivers who unintentionally cause deaths due to this may be heavily penalized. Like drunk driving, judges do not take kindly to transgressions which result from breaking laws that already exist.
Another leading reason for wrongful deaths are the unsafe working environments for deceased victims. In such cases, the dependent claimants may make a claim from the employer. It is the employer’s duty to make their workplace safe for employees, especially for workers who work in hazardous circumstances. Even though an employer might not have committed a tangible act or omission and even taken reasonable care of the premises, the responsibility to compensate still falls on them.
Product/ Service Liability
Selling defective products, even if the seller had no knowledge of any defect, makes the seller liable to pay compensation. This also stands true for cases where a defective product or service causes the death of a person.
A victim dying as a result of negligent behavior from nurses, doctors or other medical staff is a wrongful death. This includes not giving proper care or medications at the assigned times to a patient even if the medic did not foresee the patient’s condition worsening.
Ignoring Property Safety
If the death was caused on the private premises of the defendant due to a reason like slipping and falling on wet tiles, it is a wrongful death. The fact that the home or private property belonged to the defendant, and they could not have thought of a person possibly dying is of no prevalence. It is the duty of a property owner to make their personal space safe for a visiting third party.
Intentional Violence or Crime
Sometimes, intentionally causing violence or committing a crime may cause a wrongful death. In these cases, the perpetrator has the intention of causing mischief through violence but not the intention to cause death. Similarly, if a death is caused in the course of a crime- it is not a homicide but a wrongful death.
In a nutshell, wrongful deaths are caused by acts or omissions that are not the defendant’s reasonable or regular behavior. Moreover, if the defendant could have done more to prevent a fatality but didn’t, they may be held liable under the law.
Who Can File a Claim
There are a number of parties who are permitted to file a wrongful death claim in a court of law. The primary parties include the victim’s: spouse or domestic partner, children and grandchildren.
In case, none of the decedent’s direct relatives are alive, then the person eligible to receive the victim’s property through intestate succession may bring a claim. “Intestate succession” is when someone is automatically qualified to inherit the property, if the original owner did not leave a will.
Apart from the above parties, other parties who may file a claim have to prove they were financially dependent on the deceased person. These parties include the victim’s: parent’s, putative spouse, putative spouse’s children, step-children, and the legal guardians only when parents are deceased. A putative spouse is someone who, in good faith, believes themselves to be involved in a valid marriage with the other person.
Essentials of Proving Wrongful Death
To prove that a certain case is a wrongful death, there are some essential elements to be covered. To prove these points, it is extremely crucial to begin the claim and get in touch with a lawyer on time. Why? Because even though wrongful deaths are civil matters, the evidence required to form a claim with a good chance of winning requires time and patience. Any party that brings a legal action for wrongful death, from children to parents are advised to have their evidence ready for a quicker and more straightforward court procedure. To make a successful wrongful death claim, an attorney proves the following points:
That The Defendant Owed a Duty to the Decedent
The first is the aspect that there was a duty owed by the defendant towards the victim. This duty arises as the result of a relationship between the wrongdoer and their victim. The relationship however does not refer to the parties being acquainted with each other. It refers to a relationship that arises even between strangers. For example- the victim being a cyclist and the defendant being a driver.
In this case, none of the parties know each other, however a relation of taking due care is established between the two. If the driver hits a cyclist due to a negligent act on their part, then the driver would have breached the terms of their relationship. Hence, the duty owed here is that the driver will drive their car with vigilance and take extra precautions to not endanger pedestrians or two-wheel riders.
Negligent Breach of Duty
Once the attorney has established a duty was owed, the next step is to prove that this duty was breached as a result of negligence. In the above illustration, if the driver fatally runs over a pedestrian because they lost control of their vehicle due to a heart attack, it would not be a wrongful death. In this case, the driver may have been driving with necessary care but the heart attack was a circumstance that could not have been foreseen or controlled. Hence, it wasn’t negligence.
Suppose a driver runs over a pedestrian and later it’s found out that they were using their mobile phone while driving. This time the driver will be held liable for negligence even if they insist their attention was on the road.
Cause of Death
After proving negligence, the claimants have to prove that the death was caused solely because of the negligent act of the defendant. It must also be shown that nothing else added to the same. In cases where the death of a victim takes place some time after a wrongful mishap, the plaintiffs have to show the court a sequence of events leading up to the death.
Attorneys use medical records to prove this causation- that the victim was in good health but after the incident, their health gradually declined. That the symptoms were directly related to the injury caused by the wrongful act.
That Pecuniary Losses were Suffered by the Plaintiff
After proving the above three elements, the proof of financial loss is more or less a formality. Since courts may even direct the defendant to pay punitive damages to deter them from being negligent in the future.
A claimant may list financial expenses that occurred due to the incident- funeral and burying, medication, hospital expenses etc. Other monetary claims include the loss of income that the deceased earned from their job and the support they provided.
However, to receive compensation, financial loss is not the only factor that might pay damages. There is another type of damage that we have mentioned below.
Types of Damages
As enumerated under California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) number 3921, there are two types of damages involved when the case is of wrongful death. In civil law, “damages” are the monetary payments made to an aggrieved party by the defendant to settle disputes or to cover financial losses.
These types of damages are paid as recompense for the pecuniary injury that the claimant suffered as a result of the decedent’s death. In the claim, these damages may include:
- funeral expenses
- loss of victim’s salary that contributed to the household
- personal gifts the claimant expected to receive from the deceased
As the name suggests, these damages do not focus on the financial loss endured by the claimant due to the wrongful death. Its primary objective is to compensate the claimant for the intangible aspects of a relationship. The non-economic damages for wrongful death are known as:
Loss of Consortium
In California, an action known as the Loss of Consortium arises when the wrongful death of one spouse leaves the other spouse without the love and affection of their partner. It basically means that the defendant has denied their victim of the emotional support and companionship that they enjoyed prior to their spouse’s death. Apart from the intimate aspects, this action also includes a claim for the deprivation of combined spousal roles such as household chores and childcare.
There is another form of loss of consortium action for parent-children relationships, but it is not recognized under California law.
Statute of Limitations for Filing Wrongful Death Claim
The rule of limitation, that is the time within which the claim should be filed, for a wrongful death claim in California prescribes a two-year period. This period starts from the day of the victim’s death. Nevertheless, the limitation rule might be subject to some exceptions. If the defendant is the government, the prescribed time might be less than two years. On the other hand, if a case lies in any of the exceptions to the rule or includes a homicide case, the court might be willing to hear the claim.
It is due to this reason that it is even more important as responsible citizens exercising their constitutional rights to do so at the right time. One of the most critical factors that comes into play is hiring a lawyer that will take charge of your case, and on time. This makes it easier for the lawyer to build a solid claim and file it before the limitation period ends.