Wrongful Death Cases in California
The Weekend Family Ski Trip
The family was on their way up to Big Bear for a weekend ski trip. It was raining and the highway was wet and slick.
Without warning, a semi tractor trailer truck was traveling too fast on the same wet highway and lost control. Unable to stop, it broadsided the family of five. The mother and father were killed instantly. The three children seated in the back of the van survived and are now required to spend the rest of their lives taking care of themselves.
The Afternoon Picnic
In another case, an 18 year-old high school track star and his family decided to cool off and spend a hot summer day at a local private lake. While swimming, this young athlete experienced severe cramping and drowned.
The lifeguard in the tower was not paying attention and failed to observe this young man in distress. Despite members of the general public viewing what was happening, the lifeguard also failed to notice this young man eventually sink below the surface of the lake until he was told by bystanders. Unfortunately, it was too late. Safety experts found the lifeguard at fault for violating about a half dozen safety policies and procedures.
California Wrongful Death
The above wrongful death cases are real. They accurately depict how unfair wrongful death cases are and, how quickly they can take place. Tragically, these types of cases happen almost every day.
In fact, most people are not aware of the fact that every five minutes in the United States, there is a wrongful death. This equates to more than 100,000 children, teenagers and adults sustaining untimely deaths each and every year. A majority of the traffic related wrongful deaths involve teenage drivers between the age of 16-21.
Good lawyers bring wrongful death cases to help provide for the long-term support of the surviving family members. In California, a Wrongful Death normally involves a claim against a person or company who is legally responsible for the death of an individual. The claim is brought in a civil action, usually by close relatives (legal heirs) as provided by statute.
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.
Who Can File a California Wrongful Death Case?
California’s wrongful death laws permit certain individuals with a designated relationship to the victim to file a wrongful death claim. Although exceptions do exists, in California the following people may bring a claim in court for the wrongful death of a loved one:
The victim’s surviving spouse, children, issue of deceased children, registered domestic partner, dependent putative spouse, dependent stepchildren, dependent minors living in the victim’s household for at least six months, and dependent parents. If there are no heirs as described above, then claimants include those who would be entitled to inherit the victim’s estate under the law of intestate succession: Parents, whether or not they were dependent; if there are none, then siblings or children of deceased siblings; if there are none, then grandparents; if there are none, then children of a deceased spouse. If none of these relatives exist, the next of kin may file a wrongful death suit.
A wrongful death victim’s personal representative can also maintain a wrongful death action on behalf of the individuals listed above. A personal representative is a person appointed by the probate court to handle the wrongful death victim’s assets, or estate.
What is the Difference Between a Wrongful Death Case and a Survival Action?
In a wrongful death case, which is a separate statutory cause of action in California, the specified heirs are entitled to recover damages on their own behalf for the unique loss they have sustained by reason of the victim’s death. Wrongful death damages are not part of the victims estate.
Proving the elements of a wrongful death case are much the same as in a personal injury case. Available damages, depending on the evidence, may include economic damages such as financial support the decedent would have contributed to the family during the lifetime of the decedent or the plaintiff; loss of gifts or benefits that plaintiff would have expected to receive from decedent; funeral and burial expenses and the reasonable value of household services that decedent would have provided.
Non-economic damages include may include a loss of decedent’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support; a loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations and the loss of decedent’s training and guidance.
In a survival action, the cause of action “survives” the death of the person and passes to the person’s successor in interest, who could be a surviving family member or the personal representative of the estate. Damages recoverable are limited to the loss or damage that the decedent sustained or incurred before death, including any penalties or punitive damages that the decedent would have been entitled to recover.
This might include damages personal to the decedent, such as medical expenses, and lost wages. However, believe it or not, damages for pain and suffering are not allowed in survival actions.
In some cases, punitive damages are recoverable in a survival action if the victim survived the accident, however briefly, or if the property of the victim was damaged or lost before death. The only time the elements of survival or property damage are not necessary to obtain punitive damages is when the wrongful death resulted from a homicide for which the defendant has been convicted of a felony. In many cases, the survival action may be joined with the wrongful death claim and litigated at the same time.
Another distinction is the statute of limitations period, which in a survival action runs for two years from the date of the injury, or for six months after death, whichever is later. An action for wrongful death, in contrast, must be brought within two years from the date of death. A wrongful death action may be joined and tried together with a survivor action when both actions arose out of the same wrongful act.
What Damages are Available in a California Wrongful Death Case?
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.
The main difference is the type of damages sought. In a wrongful death case, the plaintiffs are the surviving family members, and they are claiming damages caused to them as a result of the death of their loved one. Therefore, damages that were personal to the decedent, such as medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering, are not available. However, different types of economic and non-economic damages are available.
Economic damages recoverable in a wrongful death action include: financial support the decedent would have contributed to the family during the lifetime of the decedent or the plaintiff; loss of gifts or benefits that plaintiff would have expected to receive from decedent; funeral and burial expenses reasonable value of household services that decedent would have provided to his or her loved ones.
Non-economic damages include: loss of decedent’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support; loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations; loss of decedent’s training and guidance.
In some cases, punitive damages are recoverable in a survival action if the victim survived the accident, however briefly, or if the property of the victim was damaged or lost before death. The only time brief survival or property damages are not necessary to obtain punitive damages is when the wrongful death resulted from a homicide for which the defendant has been convicted of a felony. In many cases, the survival action may be joined with the wrongful death claim and litigated at the same time.
A jury is not permitted to consider the grief, sorrow or mental anguish of the heirs, the poverty or wealth of the heirs, or the wrongful death victim’s pain and suffering. Although a loved one who witnessed the death of another may have a separate cause of action for emotional distress.
What is the Standard of Proof in a California Wrongful Death Case?
The standard of proof in the United States is typically preponderance of the evidence as opposed to clear and convincing or beyond a reasonable doubt. Because proving a case beyond a preponderance of the evidence (slight tipping of scales) is usually easier than a criminal prosecution (beyond a reasonable doubt), most wrongful death cases are handled in the civil court system.
Are There Any Special Time Limits to Asserting a California Wrongful Death Case?
Yes there are. 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. This requires retaining investigators and experts to commence investigations and evaluations as promptly as possible. Hiring an experienced California wrongful death lawyer therefore should not be delayed.
In civil wrongful death cases, most states have a strict statute of limitations which means that court proceedings must be properly commenced within a certain period of time after the incident or the claimant will lose his or her right to bring a claim.
Can a Person Who Causes the Death of Another Human Being be Prosecuted for Both the Criminal Wrongful Death and the Civil Wrongful Death?
The answer is yes. In some instances, a civil and criminal case can both be filed at the same time. For example, a person may be prosecuted criminally for causing a person’s death (murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide) and that same person can also be sued civilly in a wrongful death action. The OJ Simpson case is a good example of how this process works.
From a Lawyers Perspective, What Does it Take to Be a Good Wrongful Death Lawyer?
It can take many years and many cases before a lawyer “learns” how to properly handle and persuasively argue a wrongful death case. By their very nature, the available damages in a wrongful death case are simply not quantifiable through formulas or expert testimony.
The extent of compensation heirs can recover in these types of damages relies in significant part on the preparation and artfulness of the lawyers they hire. Convincing juries of the amount to which the heirs are entitled for these damages must be done skillfully through the lawyer’s capacity for persuasion and advocacy.
What Happens Next in a Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Case- Overview…
When you or a family member is involved in a personal injury or wrongful death case, it’s extremely important to act quickly and make smart decisions from the very beginning of your case.
Being seen and properly diagnosed by an experienced and well respected health care provider shortly after your accident is important for two reasons. First, making sure you get proper medical treatment is important to your short and long-term recovery. Second, it’s absolutely necessary in personal injury cases to have your doctors properly document (medical records, reports, photographs, x-rays, CT/MRI scans…) all of your injuries and treatment. This record or history will be used to confirm all of your injuries and injury related issues later in the claim, litigation, or trial process.
Doctors such as orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, physical therapists and chiropractors may be needed to help you recover as fast as possible. Economists, life-case planners, as well as experts in vocational rehab are sometimes necessary to help calculate, explain and prove your financial losses.
Investigation and Protecting Evidence
When it comes to investigating the incident that caused your injuries and damages, it’s important to keep in mind that evidence can be difficult to locate as time passes. Objects get moved or removed from the accident scene. Skid marks wash away with rain and other evidence such as broken asphalt, walls, and buildings get repaired or replaced. Damage to vehicles may get repaired before being photographed and the memories of defendants and witnesses fade over time (or after being coached by the other side). In some cases these people simply “disappear.”
To avoid having this happen to you, photographs and video should be taken and all evidence preserved. Investigators should be used to talk to and record the statements of the people involved in your incident and to interview all witnesses.
In most cases, experts in areas such as accident reconstruction or bio-mechanical engineering should be retained and used to review the facts and help establish liability, force of impact, and damages in your case.
Claim and Lawsuit Filing Deadlines
In almost every case, you only have a certain period of time to file a claim or lawsuit. If you fail to properly file or serve the required legal documents in a timely fashion, you will forever lose your legal right to pursue a claim or case against the responsible party. The requirements and time period you have to file a claim against a governmental entity such as a city, county or state is different than when dealing with a private party or company in a slip and fall or automobile, motorcycle, or large truck accident case. Medical malpractice cases also have their own unique requirements and limited time periods to take action.
Legal documents called claims, pleadings, and motions are normally prepared to file with the court to protect your rights and maximize your chances of obtaining a full and complete settlement or verdict. Settlement demand packages are also sometimes necessary to attempt settlement of a case before the need for a lawsuit becomes necessary. Mediation, arbitration and trials are all used to obtain a final decision in a personal injury and wrongful death case.
Who Pays in a Personal Injury or Wrongful Death Case?
When it comes to recovering damages in most vehicle accident cases, most experienced personal injury law firms look to the responsible party’s automobile liability insurance or homeowners insurance. If the person who caused your injuries was employed with a company at the time he or she caused the accident and, was in the scope and course of employment, we may also pursue a claim against the employer company based upon a legal theory of respondent superior (the employer is liable for the wrongful conduct of its employees while on the job).
Other theories of liability may also be reviewed and pursued which might include a dangerous or defective product claim against the manufacturer or a maker of one of the vehicles parts or components (defective brakes, tires, unsafe/exploding gas tank design…).
If the other party has insufficient insurance or no insurance at all, you may be entitled to bring an uninsured motorist or underinsured motorist claim available against your own insurance company. In these circumstances, we will also use experts to undertake an asset background check to see whether or not there is any real property, bank accounts, home equity, or other significant assets to cover your losses. In many cases where the other party was either uninsured or insufficiently insured, we’ve been able to use these techniques to get payment on a large judgment against the other side.
The bottom line is that no settlement should take place and no settlement releases should be signed until you have full and complete answers to all of the above questions and issues.
Wrongful Death Cases in California- Get Your Questions Answered Today!
Since 1986, we’ve truly enjoyed helping people, not big corporations and insurance companies. Our daily focus involves protecting the injured, the wronged, and the voiceless, not large businesses that routinely trample, abuse, and exploit the rights of the less fortunate.
Our drive and motivation has always been devoted to leveling the playing field for our clients and families against the self-serving goals of corporate greed and higher corporate profits.
We truly look forward to answering any questions you may have about your personal injury or wrongful death case. Please do not hesitate to pick up the phone and give us a call at 800-661-7044. If you like, you may also contact us via chat, the convenient web form below or through our main web site at www.Jackson-Wilson.com
More About How and Why We Can Help You with Your Wrongful Death Case…
Jackson & Wilson has been helping victims of personal injury and wrongful death since 1986. The firm and partners have received numerous awards over the past 25 years including a top “AV” rating by Martindale-Hubbell (highest rating in ability and ethics) and a prestigious listing in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers.
Senior Partner, Jon Mitchell “Mitch” Jackson, is proud to have been named Orange County Trial Lawyer of the Year for his successful jury verdict in a very difficult wrongful death case and, has repeatedly been named a Southern California Super Lawyer by Law and Politics Magazine.
Senior Partner, Lisa M. Wilson, has secured one of the largest first party insurance bad faith settlements in Southern California and is a multiple time member of the Million Dollar Advocate Club which is an organization reserved for only those who have obtained a settlement or verdict in excess of One Million Dollars.
Copyright 2010: Jackson & Wilson