At times, a person's negligence could lead to the death of another person. If you lose a loved one due to the negligence of another party, you could file a wrongful death claim and seek compensation. Under California law, a wrongful death claim is not a criminal lawsuit but a civil lawsuit. An eligible survivor of the deceased person can bring a lawful wrongful death claim against the defendant. Wrongful deaths often result from car accidents, truck accidents, motorcycle accidents, and pedestrian accidents, among others. The Personal Injury Attorney Law Firm can guide you on how to file a wrongful death claim.

The Process of Filing a Wrongful Death Claim

While filing a wrongful death claim in California, you have to follow the right procedure. Some of the steps that you should follow are:

  1. Hire an Attorney

It is difficult to lose your loved one, especially due to the negligence of another person. With all the confusion and bitterness, it might be hard to focus on the legal process of pursuing wrongful death compensation. As you go through this trying time, it would be wise to have an experienced attorney by your side.

Working with an attorney who understands wrongful death claims will increase your likelihood of winning the case. An attorney has an in-depth understanding of the legal process involved in filing a wrongful death claim. The attorney also understands California's wrongful death statutes. The attorney will assist you in filing the necessary paperwork and legal documents.

If you try to navigate a wrongful death claim on your own, the process might be time-consuming. Choosing to work with an attorney will save you time and money. An attorney will do most of the work for you and give you time to spend with your relatives as you mourn the demise of your loved one.

  1. Consider If You are Eligible to File a Wrongful Death Claim

It is important to note that not every person is eligible to file a wrongful death claim in California. Whether you are eligible will depend on the relationship that existed between you and the deceased person. Your attorney can advise you if you can file the claim or whether an alternative, a qualifying person, should file.

According to California law, Civil Procedure 377.60, certain people are eligible to file a wrongful death claim when a loved one dies. Some of the eligible persons are:

  • The deceased person's surviving spouse
  • The dead person's domestic partner
  • The children of the dead person
  • The deceased person's grandchildren if the children are not alive
  • Stepchildren or other minor children who depended on the dead person for more than 50% of their support

According to the California intestate succession laws, any other individual would be a beneficiary of the deceased person's property according to the California intestate succession laws

The survivors of a dead person could file a wrongful death claim if the death of their loved one occurred due to the negligence of another party. The death could also have occurred due to recklessness, gross negligence, or an intentional wrongful act committed by another person.

  1. Determine If You Have a Valid Case

Some cases might not qualify for wrongful death compensation, according to California law. You will need legal counsel to evaluate the circumstances that led to the death of your loved one. Depending on the facts surrounding the demise of your loved one, an attorney will advise you on whether to file a claim. You could file a wrongful death claim under certain circumstances: 

  • If you lose your loved one in a negligent car accident, you can seek compensation. Car accidents are common in California. The majority of accidents occur due to reckless driving and intoxication. Car accidents also occur due to failure to follow traffic rules and engaging in distracted driving.
  • Many wrongful deaths in California occur due to pedestrian accidents involving negligent vehicle drivers. It is common for vehicles to hit pedestrians on the highways, streets, and parking lots. Pedestrian accidents mainly occur when drivers engage in reckless driving like speeding. Drivers also fail to yield a right of way to pedestrians and end up knocking them down.
  • Your loved one might have died in a slip and fall accident. A slip and fall accident is outlined under California's premises liability accidents. Not all falls qualify for slip and fall compensation. For a wrongful death lawsuit to succeed, it must be evident that the slip and fall accident occurred due to another person's negligence. For instance, the property owner could be liable if he/she knew or should have known that a hazardous condition existed in the property he/she controlled. Even after learning about the hazardous condition, it should be evident that the defendant failed to have the condition repaired.
  • If your loved one suffers injuries and dies due to healthcare professionals' negligence, you can seek compensation for medical malpractice. Most people often have the mentality that due to medical malpractice damage caps, a lawyer might not be willing to take their case. You should not fail to pursue a lawsuit if your loved one dies due to medical malpractice. Allow your attorney to investigate the case and fight on your behalf.
  • Certain wrongful acts could lead to the death of your loved one. You would file a wrongful death claim if the wrongful act was intentional. Common intentional acts in California include murder and manslaughter. If your loved one dies due to a deliberate wrongful act like murder, the lawsuit will fall under intentional torts. Most insurance companies do not cover losses that occur due to intentional acts. Most people fail to pursue wrongful death claims, especially if the defendant does not have ample income to pay the claim. However, with the help of an attorney, it is possible to get compensation.
  • It is common for wrongful death lawsuits to arise due to dangerous products. For instance, your loved one could have died after consuming unsafe products released into the market by pharmaceutical companies. People also die after consuming tainted food. Food could be harmful due to a lack of proper preparation and inspection. Deaths from unsafe products could also include deaths occurring due to defective machines and motor vehicles. When your loved one dies due to defective products, you could seek compensation from the product manufacturers.
  • You could file a wrongful death lawsuit if your loved one dies due to exposure to harmful or toxic substances. For instance, wrongful death could have occurred due to exposure to asbestos. You should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer to help you seek compensation for deaths arising due to harmful products. Many states in the U.S have specific laws, which govern wrongful deaths occurring due to toxic products.
  • Under certain circumstances, you could file a wrongful death lawsuit even if your loved one dies due to suicide. You could sue the person who had a special duty of caring for the deceased person. For instance, if an elderly person commits suicide, the decedent's primary caregiver might be liable. If a school counselor or therapist noticed signs of distress in a student but failed to act, he/she could be responsible for the decedent's death. In some states like California, you could base a wrongful death claim on extreme behavior such as ridicule if the decedent committed suicide due to emotional distress. Therefore, the party responsible for ridiculing the decedent could be liable.
  1. Prove that the Defendant Acted Negligently

Your attorney will help you to prove that the defendant acted negligently and that the negligence led to the death of your loved one. You need a proof of negligence to be able to file a wrongful death claim successfully. If your loved one died due to the negligence of another party, you have to prove all the elements of negligence:

  • The defendant must have owed the deceased person a duty of care
  • You have to prove that the liable party breached his/her duty of care towards the decedent
  • It should be evident that the breach of the duty of care led to an accident that led to the decedent's death
  • It must also be apparent that the decedent's death led to losses to you or other claimants. The duty of care will vary depending on the cause of the wrongful death.

The duty of care applicable will depend on the cause of death:

  • A driver has a duty of care to operate a vehicle safely. Therefore, the driver has to take note of the weather and road conditions and other road users. A driver could breach his/her duty of care in several ways. They include engaging in distracted driving, violating traffic laws, drunk driving, and other reckless acts.
  • Companies have a duty of care to ensure that they release safe products into the market. If the products have some risks, a company must inform the consumers about the potential risks of using the product. A company can breach its duty of care by selling defective or harmful products and for failing to issue a warning to the consumers.
  • A medical professional has a duty of care to ensure that he/she acts professionally and provides a level of care that matches his/her training or experience. If a medical expert's services fall below the professional standards and a problem occurs, the driver could be liable under California law for breaching his/her duty of care.
  • A property owner has a duty of care under California law to ensure that his/her property is safe. A property should be free from hazards and dangerous conditions. If a property owner knew that a particular hazard existed but failed to eliminate or correct the hazard, he/she could be liable in case a person suffers injuries and dies.

After you have proved that the defendant acted negligently and breached his/her duty of care, you must prove that the breach of duty caused your loved one's death.

  1. Proof of Intentional Harm

If your loved one died due to an intentional wrongful act of another person, you must have proof of intentional harm while filing a wrongful death claim. You can prove intentional harm by showing that:

  • The defendant committed the killing on purpose or intentionally
  • You should also prove that the liable person made a non-consensual contact with the decedent.
  • It must be evident that the defendant's contact on the decedent caused the decedent's death.

In most cases, people who commit intentional wrongful acts face criminal consequences. However, with the help of a personal injury attorney, you can seek compensation for the wrongful death of your loved one.

  1. Outline the Damages Resulting From The Wrongful Death

In addition to proving negligence and breach of duty of care, you also need to have proof of damages resulting from the wrongful death. However, according to California law, you cannot recover damages for emotional distress in a wrongful death claim. Therefore, you can file a claim of wrongful death and a separate one for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the same person.

Some of the damages that you can prove while filing a wrongful death claim in California include:

  • Loss of monetary/financial support
  • Loss of future income
  • Loss of domestic/household services
  • Burial expenses and other costs associated with funeral of the decedent
  • Loss of companionship, decedent's care, love, assistance, moral support, and affection

It might be hard to prove that you have suffered the damages named above. In most cases, you will require expert analysis to prove the damages. This is where a personal injury attorney comes in. While determining the extent of damages, you have to consider certain factors. For instance, it is crucial to consider the life expectancy of the decedent. You should also consider the decedent's abilities, skills, and education. You also have to consider the advancement of the decedent in his/her career. With the help of an attorney, you can prove that you suffered the said damages. Having a convincing proof of damages will make the trial and negotiation process easy.

Proving the elements of wrongful death is often complicated. However, to get the compensation you deserve, you need to have a convincing claim.

  1. Be Prompt in Filing the Claim

To compensate for the wrongful death of your loved one, you have to act within the statutory limits. A statute of limitations is a procedural court rule that outlines the period within which you should file a lawsuit. If you fail to file a wrongful death lawsuit within the statute of limitations, you could miss the compensation.

In California, the statute of limitations for wrongful death is two years from the date of the decedent's passing. However, a discovery rule, which is an exemption to the statute of limitations exists. At times, the exact cause of a person's death may not be apparent at the time of passing. The real cause of death might surface later. In such a case, the court might extend the family's statute of limitations to a more extended period than two years.

If the discovery rule applies, you will have two years to file a lawsuit from when you discovered the cause of the death of your loved one. Your injury attorney can help you to understand further exemptions to the discovery rule.

A different statute of limitations will apply if you are filing a wrongful death claim against the government or a government entity. For instance, if an accident occurred due to poor road design, you would have to file a claim against the government. While filing a claim against the government or a state entity, you will have six months from the decedent's death to file the claim.

A longer statute of limitations will apply if the case involves a minor suing for the death of his/her loved one. For instance, a child could be filing a wrongful death lawsuit for the loss of parents. In this case, the statute of limitations will be two years from when the minor attains the age of 18 years.

If the death occurred due to medical malpractice, you would have one year from the date of death to seek compensation.

  1. File a Civil Lawsuit

In most cases, wrongful death claims in California do not proceed to court. With the help of your attorney, you can file the wrongful death claim out of court and agree on a settlement with the defendant. However, you could also file a wrongful death claim in court against the person responsible for the death of your loved one.

In some instances, you could also sue the defendant's insurance company for the death of your loved one. A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action that differs from criminal prosecution for crimes like manslaughter and murder.

A civil action aims to punish the defendant for his/her wrongdoing. While filing a civil action, you cannot seek imprisonment or any other punishment. A civil action seeks monetary compensation to help cover the losses of losing a loved one.

  1. Receive Compensation

A wrongful death will compensate you and other heirs to the deceased for the support you would have expected to receive if the dead person had lived. The compensatory damages comprise both economic and non-economic damages.

The number of damages received will depend on the life expectancy of the deceased person at the time of death. The jury determines life expectancy by considering the lifestyle, health, and occupation of the deceased person. You could receive compensation for both economic damages and non-economic damages:

Economic Damages

The economic damages for your loved one's wrongful death will comprise the support you would have received from your loved one. You will get the present value of the support the deceased person would have provided. When determining the current value, the court will consider the support the decedent would have if he/she remained alive and enjoyed a normal lifespan.

The spouse of the deceased is entitled to the financial support he/she would have received from the deceased person. The court will consider the deceased person's life expectancy or the surviving spouse's life expectancy, whichever is shorter.

If a parent dies and leaves behind a minor, the minor is entitled to financial compensation for the support he/she would have received from the parent. The court will consider the period the child has until he/she reaches adulthood. The child could prove that the support of the parent would have extended into adulthood as the child pursues higher education. In such a case, the child might receive higher compensation.

Non-Economic Damages

The non-economic damages that you can be able to recover after filing a wrongful death claim fall under three main categories:

  • The loss of enjoyment of sexual relations with the deceased. The spouse or domestic partner of the dead could receive this compensation
  • A child could receive the loss of guidance and training that his/her parent would have provided
  • Family members could receive compensation for loss of companionship and love of the deceased

Putting a dollar value on the loss of love and companionship is not easy. However, judges in California have instructions to ensure that the compensation is fair and just. The juries have the liberty to determine the amount of compensation, which is just. Your attorney can help you determine the value of your claim based on similar cases, which the judge could have handled in the past.

Punitive Damages

Generally, you cannot be able to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death case in California. However, there is an exception to the law if the deceased person died due to a felony homicide for which the defendant has received a conviction. However, you could be able to receive punitive damages through a survival action on behalf of the deceased person's estate.

Find an California Injury Attorney Near Me

No amount of compensation can match the loss of a loved one or eliminate the sorrow and pain of losing your loved one. However, this should not hinder you from filing a wrongful death lawsuit after losing your loved one. You could receive financial compensation, which will help fill the financial gap left by the deceased person. If you are wondering how to file a wrongful death claim, we can help. Contact The Personal Injury Attorney Law Firm at 619-625-8707 and speak to one of our attorneys right away.