Losing a loved one is devastating, more so if someone else's carelessness or negligence causes their death. When you lose a loved one in such circumstances, California law allows you to file a wrongful death claim to acquire compensation from the liable party as the bereaved family or relative.

No amount of money can take away the grief, but it helps the family cater to their financial costs compounded after losing their loved one. Filing a wrongful death lawsuit can also offer an amount of consolation by holding the negligent party liable.

Hiring a personal injury attorney to assist you in your case as you grief for your loss and heal can help avoid suffering additional stress that comes with compensation trial procedures. At Orange County Personal Injury Attorney law firm, we will diligently represent you in court and ensure your right to receive full compensation for your loss.

Our attorneys are proficient in handling wrongful death cases and know which strategies to apply for successful results. Our services are available to those injured in Orange County, California, and the surrounding areas. Contact us for more information about the topic of wrongful death claims or to learn more about the services we offer.

Aspects of a Wrongful Death Claim

Generally, a wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit filed by a close relative, personal representative or family member of a deceased person against a party whose negligence led to its death. The claim allows the surviving loved ones of a victim to obtain compensation for their loss. In California, the Wrong Death Law is found in the California Code of Civil Procedures 377.60. Wrongful death is when someone intentionally causes harm or acts in a manner that shows carelessness beyond usual standards, thereby causing a human being's death.

For a wrongful death claim to apply, the plaintiff should prove that the defendant acted in negligence, gross negligence, or recklessness. If the lawsuit is successful, the court requires the defendant to pay a monetary settlement to the plaintiff.

You can file this lawsuit even if the deceased is a child or an older adult. However, the compensation can be modest compared to other decedents. The financial compensation received is dependent mainly on the earning capacity the deceased had. Furthermore, you cannot file the wrongful death claim if an unborn fetus dies; the law requires that a child be born alive for the lawsuit to be significant. Consequently, you can only file a wrongful death claim if someone's negligent acts lead to the death of a child who was born alive.

Wrongful Death VS Homicide

Wrongful death is different from homicide cases in that the defendant will only be required to compensate the plaintiff, without serving a jail term or other severe penalties. Furthermore, a wrongful death claim is brought by the deceased's surviving relatives or family, while homicide is a criminal charge brought by the state against a defendant. The court is less stringent on proving liability in wrongful death cases than homicide cases that require the defendant to be proved guilty beyond any reasonable doubt.

The lawsuit can be brought in even if the defendant's criminal case is still underway in court. The considerable number of wrongful death lawsuits are regulated by negligence apart from strict liability cases. Before filing this claim, consult your attorney to determine if your case fits into the elements of wrongful death.

Strict Liability

Strict liability cases occur when a defective product or animal bite causes death or injury. For instance, when one is injured by a domestic animal with known dangerous predispositions and dies from the injuries, the dog owner can be held liable for the wrongful death. Also, when death is caused by a product made and distributed by the defendant, they can be held responsible for wrongful death.

Unlike wrongful death through negligence that requires the defendant to commit an act of carelessness, wrongful death by strict liability allows a defendant to be sued despite how careful they might have been in preventing the harm. That is, even if the defendant did not act in negligence, they could still be found liable.

Elements of a Wrongful Death Claim, the Plaintiff, Needs to Prove

A wide array of situations can lead to the wrongful death of a person. The plaintiff should prove the following elements if the case is to qualify as wrongful death.

  1. A human being died
  2. The death was caused by someone else's negligence, recklessness, gross negligence, or intent to cause harm but not death.
  3. Due to the deceased's death, their family member or relative is facing financial suffering.
  4. An heir to the deceased's fortune or a personal delegate has been appointed.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?

You could bring a wrongful death lawsuit if your relationship with the deceased were in any of the following ways.

  • A surviving domestic partner or spouse is granted the first right to bring a compensation lawsuit to court.
  • The deceased's child
  • Grandchildren
  • Stepchildren or any other children who depended on the deceased for not less than 50% of their financial support and who 180 days before the deceased's death, resided in their premises can be entitled to the wrongful death claim. Additionally, the decedent's parents or putative spouse can file this claim if they prove that they were financially dependent on the decedent. A parent may file the case if there is no surviving child or spouse of the deceased. A putative spouse is someone believed to be married to the decedent and that there is a good faith belief that their marriage was valid.
  • In case there is none of the above-surviving persons, an appointed personal representative or any other person who would be legally entitled to inherit the decedent's property upon their death can file the claim.

Examples of Situations That Could Lead to A Wrongful Death

Situations that could lead to wrongful death are hard to place into categories since the possibilities are complex and limitless. Both legal and illegal acts could lead to a wrongful death depending on the circumstances. Therefore, if you are looking to acquire compensation for your loved one's loss, your case must pass review by a lawyer highly experienced in the personal injury practice area. Possible situations that can fit as wrongful death cases include the following.

Medical Malpractice- in the medical field, several parties can be held liable if malpractice results in someone's death. You can sue a doctor, nurse, or student nurse in charge of the patient for wrongful death if a patient dies due to a careless action or inaction. Furthermore, the hospital where the patient was admitted can hold liability on behalf of their staff. If a medical practitioner's negligent acts or failure to uphold their duty of care leads to losing a loved one, you can file a compensation suit against them.

Auto Accidents- if you lost your loved one to a road accident caused by a negligent motorist, you may want to consider filing a wrongful death claim against them. Negligence is evident if the driver was driving under the influence, distracted driving, violated traffic rules, or made a reckless error, which could have been avoided.

Also, the driver's employer can be held liable if they were aware the driver was an endangerment to other road users or if they instructed the driver to perform a task that led to the accident. An employer can also be sued if they failed to maintain a vehicle, causing a road accident. Lastly, a wrongful death claim can be filed against the authority responsible for road maintenance if an accident occurs due to a damaged road.

Work-related Accidents- an employer should ensure suitable and safe working conditions for their employees to work. Consequently, if an employee's death occurs in the business premises, the business's employer or owner can be held liable if they were aware of the dangerous conditions or denied the employee time off to seek medical attention. You can be entitled to a wrongful death claim if you lose a loved one due to their employer's negligence.

Defective Products- finally, a manufacturing company can be sued if a defective product they manufactured, sold, or distributed leads to someone's death. For instance, if your loved one dies of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, the company that manufactured, distributed, or sold the motorcycle can be found liable to their death if a defective part caused the accident on the bike. Moreover, the servicing company or the mechanic can be charged if they caused the defect as they were servicing or repairing the motorcycle.

Elder Abuse- elderly persons may hire persons to assist them in daily tasks that prove challenging. Others are taken to older people's homes to receive appropriate medical assistance and care. If anyone under the obligation of taking care of them violates the duty of care, they can be held liable for a death that occurs due to their careless conduct or intentional harm. Consult a personal injury attorney if you suspect that your loved one's death was caused by such carelessness.

Premises Liability- all premises owners are obligated to maintain their property in a condition that will not pose harm to other persons on the premises. Premises liability can be in terms of slip and fall incidents or other foreseeable accidents. Persons in premises are categorized into invitees, licensees, and trespassers. An invitee is invited into the premises; invitees are entitled to a stringent duty of care, and those asking them should ensure the place is free of any danger.

Licensees are people authorized to access the premises. The duty of care on licensees is lower than that of invitees since it is presumed that they know the premises. However, the owner of the premises should ensure the environment is safe for all personnel.

Trespassers are those who enter premises without the owner's permission. The landowner does not owe a duty of care to such persons unless it is a child. Consequently, if your loved one's death occurs in someone else's premises and you are considering filing a wrongful death claim against the liable party, you want to seek counsel from a proficient personal injury attorney. They will review your case and help you file the compensation for which your case qualifies.

Finally, suppose the defendant is convicted of criminal acts such as assault and battery, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and any other violent crimes or non-violent crimes that led to your family member's death. In that case, you can file a civil lawsuit against them for wrongful death.

Wrongful Death by a Police Officer

Even though police officers are meant to enforce peace, an unruly situation can lead them to act negligently or violate civilians' rights. Consequently, they could cause injuries or wrongful death of a civilian. Unlike wrongful death suits against private citizens or non-governmental institutions filed in state court, wrongful death claims against a police officer can be filed under state law or federal law. Stipulations of federal law allow peace enforcers such as police officers to be held liable for any death that occurs due to their violation of the rights, immunities, or privileges of a US inhabitant.

If the compensation lawsuit is filed under federal law, the plaintiff will carry the burden of proof; that is, they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer violated the decedent's rights, privileges, or immunity, or they breached a constitutional stipulate. Federal law is more stringent in establishing liability than state law, which only requires a preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, if the plaintiff has insufficient evidence to be judged under federal law, it is passed down to a state law judgment.

You can file a lawsuit of the wrongful death of your loved one under federal law in situations where a peace enforcer breaches the Fourth Amendment law. Examples include

  • A law enforcer uses excessive force during an arrest, thereby leading to the deceased's death.
  • A police officer ignored a request to access medical care, which led to the ailing person's death.

On the other hand, an officer can be held liable for wrongful death under state law in situations where the officer acts in negligence, carries out unlawful imprisonment, battery cases, and any other breaching of the law that leads to wrongful death. You would hold no ground to file a federal wrongful death claim unless the officer's constitutional breach caused the death. Since law enforcers are permitted to use force reasonably under different situations as part of their work, you will be required to prove that the power used was inappropriate or unnecessary.

Damages Available in the Wrongful Death Claim

The damages that you receive compensation for vary depending on the specific circumstances of your case. Wrongful death damages are in two categories of economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages can be equated to a particular monetary value and are accredited to the deceased's estate, while non-economic damages are not quantifiable. Various factors are analyzed to establish the deserved compensation and are attributed to the deceased's surviving family members or relatives.

Economic Damages

Economic damages include medical and hospital expenses paid to treat the deceased's injuries before their death, funeral and burial costs, and future income that the decedent could have accumulated had they lived. Economic damage can still apply even if the deceased did not earn but contributed other constructive services in the family, such as a stay-at-home parent. 

Non-economic Damages

Non-economic damages entail losing the family's breadwinner, loss of love, affection, consortium, and moral support. Essentially, emotional damage restitution can be sought by the bereaved family. You can also file for compensation for the pain and suffering the decedent endured before their death. The non-economic damages are numerous; with the aid of a personal injury attorney, you can up with several claims to be compensated for depending on the nature of your case.

Wrongful Death VS Loss of Consortium

A wrongful death claim is suitable when a loved one dies due to someone else's reckless conduct. On the other hand, a loss of consortium claim can be filed even when the victim harmed by someone's recklessness is still alive. Loss of consortium compensates the spouse or domestic partner and any other close relative who had a close relationship with the injured person; the claim can include loss of parental care, loss of affection, loss of sexual intimacy, and companionship.

If there is no death, loss of consortium can be filed when the injured person is incapacitated physically or mentally. They can no longer provide affection, sexual intimacy, or companionship. A wrongful death claim can include compensation for loss of consortium.

Comparative Negligence Law in Wrongful Death Claims

Can you file a wrongful death lawsuit even when your loved one was partly at fault for the accident that led to them losing their lives? The answer to that is yes. California is a comparative fault state; that is, liability in personal injury and wrongful death cases is assigned in terms of the extent of fault each involved individual caused the injuries.

Therefore, if a close family member dies from such a situation where they were partly responsible, you can still recover compensation. For instance, if the defendant was 75% liable, and the deceased was 25% at fault, you can obtain 75% percent compensation for your loss when you file a compensation lawsuit.

Punitive Damages

In California, you cannot recover compensation for punitive damages under the wrongful death claim; unless the death was a homicide felony for which the defendant has already been found guilty of and convicted. However, you can recover punitive damages compensation through the "survival action."

What is "Survival Action"?

California Code of Civil Procedure377.30 stipulates the "survival action" law, which often follows wrongful death lawsuits. The legal survival action allows the entitled heir of the deceased's property to file a lawsuit on behalf of the decedent's assets. A survival action also allows you to sue for punitive damages after the death of your loved one. The two types of losses that can be filed under this legal action are:

  1. A claim for the injuries suffered by the decedent provided that they survived after the injuries were inflicted, no matter the length of the survival period.
  2. Other claims unrelated to the victim's death for which they were legally entitled to sue

How to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

To file a wrongful death lawsuit, you will need to gather some documents and pieces of evidence that will help out in your case. Firstly you should obtain a death certificate of the deceased to officially show that they are dead and the cause of death. Also, police reports, medical records, and autopsy reports help prove the cause of death. The medical records will also be essential in proving that you incurred medical expenses.

Furthermore, to prove the defendant's liability in terms of negligence, you should find evidence to show that the defendant owed the deceased a duty of care and failed to uphold it. Finally, you want to acquire any documents, evidence, or witnesses who can attest that you and the deceased were tied in a relationship that lies within the constraints of those eligible to file a wrongful death claim. 

After consulting a personal injury attorney for a case review, the next step is to file a complaint against the liable party. Ensure you file the lawsuit before the two years provided in the statute of limitations expires. The filed petition should inform the respondent of the nature of the case and its legal grounds. Furthermore, the plaintiff must file a subpoena to notify the defendant that they are being sued and the court where the trial will be held. Finally, the defendant is officially informed of the lawsuit when they are issued with a notice of service, after which the case formally commences.

The judge or jury considers factors such as the decedent's age, occupation, health condition, earning potential, and life expectancy to establish suitable compensation. They can also view the surviving family members' financial needs or the person entitled to the settlement.

Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims

The California statute of Limitations provides a period within which plaintiffs can file a lawsuit against the accused. After this time expires, you cannot file the claim unless under certain exceptions allowed by a court, such as when the surviving member was not aware that someone else's negligent acts caused their loved one's death. In such a case, the period will begin to count after "discovery of harm." That is after knowledge of the liability. For wrongful death claims, the statute of limitations under the Code of Procedure 335.1 stipulates that one can file a lawsuit within two years from the death date.

Find a Orange County Personal Injury Attorney Near Me

The legal processes that follow a compensation suit can be overwhelmingly stressful, especially when you are yet to heal from the pain of losing a loved one. At Orange County Personal Injury Attorney, we strive to stand with the bereaved family ensuring their legal rights are fought for, thereby allowing them enough time to overcome their grief.

Our attorneys are result-oriented and proficient in handling wrongful death claims. With the help of our lawyers, you can be assured that your compensation lawsuit will be diligently litigated. Our services extend to the family members of the victim who was killed in Orange County, CA. Contact us today at 714-876-1959 to discuss your case.