The abrupt, accidental death of a loved one is always a tragedy under any circumstances. Often, surviving family members may not be sure where to turn after such an unexpected event. If the death was accidental and caused by someone else’s carelessness, in the state of California an experienced wrongful death attorney can provide the sound legal guidance that survivors will need.
Wrongful death happens in a variety of circumstances – in fact, in far too many ways. Wrongful deaths may happen in traffic collisions caused by impaired or distracted driving or as the result of medical malpractice. A wrongful death may also be caused by a property owner’s negligence that causes a fatal slip-and-fall, by defective consumer products, or by any negligence that leads to an avoidable and unnecessary fatality. When a death was intentional on someone’s part, both a criminal prosecution for homicide and a civil wrongful death lawsuit are possible.
In California, if an accidental death was preventable, in most cases the survivors may pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. While no sum of cash can assuage a family’s grief after a loved one is suddenly lost, a wrongful death claim can at least help survivors meet their immediate financial obligations. A wrongful death lawsuit also lets the survivors hold accountable the party or parties that were negligent and responsible for their loved one’s death.
This is a brief, general introduction to wrongful death in California and the rights of survivors in this state. However, every case is different, so if a wrongful death occurs in your own family, you’ll need to obtain the sound legal advice that is specific to your personal circumstances by consulting with an experienced Pasadena wrongful death attorney. Your attorney will explain and discuss the legal rights and options of wrongful death survivors, and if necessary, fight in court for the justice that survivors need and the compensation they deserve.
WHAT IS A WRONGFUL DEATH? WHO CAN FILE A WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM?
A wrongful death may be defined as the death of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent action or actions of another person or persons. Every state allows for the recovery of damages after a wrongful death. However, what varies from state to state is the specific person or persons who have the legal right to pursue a wrongful death claim.
A person’s right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in California depends on that person’s relationship to the deceased person. Under the law in California, the following parties are authorized to bring a wrongful death claim:
- the deceased person’s surviving spouse
- the deceased person’s surviving domestic partner
- the deceased person’ s surviving children
Only if there is no surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children, then a wrongful death lawsuit may be pursued by anyone “entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession,” including the deceased person’s parents or siblings.
Additionally, if they can show that they were financially dependent on the deceased person, stepchildren may file a claim, and so can a deceased person’s “putative spouse” and that putative spouse’s children. (California courts may consider an individual a “putative” spouse when a marriage is legally invalidated but one party reasonably believed that the marriage was legally valid.)
IS IT TRUE THAT THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF WRONGFUL DEATH LAWSUITS?
California law provides for two different slightly types of lawsuits that can be brought against negligent defendants responsible for wrongful deaths. A conventional wrongful death lawsuit may be brought under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60. The other type of lawsuit is called a “survival action” and may be pursued under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.30. If your family experiences a wrongful death, you should understand the legal difference.
With a conventional wrongful death lawsuit, surviving family members can seek compensation for loss of support, loss of services, funeral and burial expenses, loss of companionship, and loss of consortium. Punitive damages, however, are not recoverable through a conventional wrongful death lawsuit.
A “survival action” may be filed by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate, or if no representative has been named, by the decedent’s “successor in interest.” A “successor in interest” is the beneficiary of the decedent’s estate or the beneficiary of some item or part of the decedent’s property that may be subject to a cause of action.
A survival action may only be pursued if the deceased person did not pass away immediately from his or her injuries. If the deceased person lived for even a brief time between the accident and the death, then a survival action may be filed. A survival action basically allows someone to recover what the deceased person would have been entitled to through a personal injury claim if the deceased person had survived – medical expenses, lost wages, and punitive damages as well. Survival actions and conventional wrongful death claims are usually separate and distinct, but in some situations, where appropriate, both types of claims may be merged into a single lawsuit.
WHAT MUST A PLAINTIFF PROVE IN A WRONGFUL DEATH TRIAL?
Wrongful death claims are usually settled out of court. Typically, attorneys for both sides are able to arrive at a settlement that is acceptable to both the plaintiff (the surviving family member bringing the claim) and the defendant (the allegedly negligent party). When a wrongful death claim goes to trial, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed the deceased person a “duty of care” and that the duty of care was breached, leading directly to the wrongful death.
For example, in a California wrongful death case arising from a traffic accident, the plaintiff first must prove that the defendant was obligated to obey the traffic laws and to drive safely. Next, a plaintiff must show that the duty of care was breached by the defendant’s negligent driving, reckless driving, speeding, or other failure to obey traffic laws. A plaintiff finally must prove that the breach of the duty of care directly caused the wrongful death – meaning that the deceased person “more likely than not” died due to the defendant’s negligence and for no other reason.
After losing a loved one, even discussing the legal aspects of a wrongful death can be difficult. Still, it’s imperative for family members to act as quickly as possible. In Southern California, survivors should seek the advice and legal services of an experienced Pasadena wrongful death attorney.
When you lose a loved one because of someone else’s negligence, you may not be prepared to deal with all of the legal and emotional issues, but a good wrongful death lawyer can be sensitive to the needs and emotions of the survivors while acting aggressively on their behalf to obtain the compensation and justice they are entitled to under California law.