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Wrongful Death

Stolen Away Too Soon: Filing Wrongful Death Claims In California

Stolen Away Too Soon: Filing Wrongful Death Claims In California

Death may be inevitable, but that does not mean every death is unavoidable. Sometimes, a loved one is taken away before their time because of someone else’s callous recklessness or negligence. This article outlines how you can demand compensation for that loss in a wrongful death claim or lawsuit if a family member is killed in a car accident, product failure, or other similar incident. We’ll talk about:

  • What can give rise to a wrongful death claim, and how that process works in California. 
  • Who can file a wrongful death claim, and how long do they have to do so? 
  • What you can claim compensation for in wrongful death cases in California.

What Is Considered A Wrongful Death Under California Law?

While there is nothing right about any death, the term wrongful death is a legal one with a very specific meaning. Every death will cause pain and suffering to the family and loved ones of an individual, but when someone dies as a result of someone else’s negligent conduct, it can be considered a wrongful death.

These deaths can occur as a result of car accidents, construction injuries, accidents on other people’s poorly maintained property, or any time a death occurs because of someone else’s negligence.

These deaths can also be delayed. Even if your relative did not die in the impact of a crash but passed away because of their injuries months later, it can be considered valid for a wrongful death claim.

Anytime you have suffered a loss, and someone else’s behavior, conduct, or product is to blame, you should contact an experienced attorney to see if you can make a wrongful death claim.

How Does The California Wrongful Death Claim Process Work?

A wrongful death claim in California is remarkably similar to a personal injury claim, but instead of filing for compensation for your own injury, you are filing as an immediate relative or dependent for the loss of a loved one, and optionally on behalf of the estate of someone who died as the result of an incident.

As a result, you actually have to work together as a group with the other heirs and dependents of the deceased. Sometimes, because of disagreements between relatives or because someone just does not want to be involved in a lawsuit, it makes sense to call an attorney on your own before you act together as a group. An attorney can help you identify and get all the heirs and dependents organized. Once an attorney is hired, the attorney can file a claim with the responsible party’s insurance, or proceed to a lawsuit if necessary.

If possible, the claim can then be resolved without the need for a more expensive lawsuit if the insurance company offers a fair settlement. If the insurance company is not willing to agree to an offer you and your family are willing to accept, then you can move on to a lawsuit against them with the help of your attorney.

Who Can File A Wrongful Death Claim In California?

There are two types of people who can claim wrongful death compensation, and in theory, all of them should work together to file a single claim.

The first category is relatives in the “intestate” succession line. In other words, should this person have died without a will, anyone who is in line, no matter how distant, should receive the benefits of their estate. Starting with a spouse or partner, then any children, then parents, and so forth.

The second category is dependents. These are any individuals who are financially dependent upon the person who died. This means that a friend who moved in and lived in the household as a dependent, an extended family member, and even a stepchild may have some claim based on the level of the dependency.

It is important to gather and get this group together quickly, though, because you do not have an unlimited amount of time to file the wrongful death claim.

What Is The Statute Of Limitation For Filing A Wrongful Death Lawsuit In California?

The statute of limitations is the legal terminology for the amount of time you have to file the claim before it becomes too late. In general, you have two years after the death of the person in question.

There are, however, several exceptions to this rule. For example, if you want to hold the government or another public entity responsible for the death, it must be made within just six months. If the death is the result of a medical malpractice incident, you have only a year.

Given the complexity of wrongful death cases and the sheer amount of damages that can be included in the claim, it is vital to contact an attorney as soon as possible to begin building it.

What Damages Can Be Sought In A Wrongful Death Claim In California?

Earlier, we briefly touched on just how many things can be included as damages that can be compensated through a wrongful death claim, but it is important to understand how broad and significant these can be.

In theory, these damages are any harm or future loss experienced as a result of the death of the person. Obviously, you cannot put a price on the value of a loved one, but there are things you can calculate clearly and others we can only approximate.

First are those that are easier to calculate, which are called economic damages. These include any income they would have contributed, as well as more abstract things like gifts or even contributions around the house. Clearly, you are not paying your spouse to do chores or repairs, but without them, you might have to pay someone to do those things, so the economic loss is genuine.

The second type is more nebulous and harder to define; these are the loss of care, comfort, society, companionship, and even mentorship of the person who passed away. The sheer volume of possible damages and their complexity is one of the reasons why it is vital to hire an attorney with prior wrongful death case experience.

How Is Liability Determined In A Wrongful Death Case In California?

When someone has died, it is only natural to try and find someone to put the blame on – but in personal injury law, that is not just natural, it’s a legal obligation.

A major aspect of these cases lies in determining whose negligent behavior caused the death of the person – and that might not always be immediately obvious. For example, imagine someone died as a result of injuries suffered in a trucking accident with a driver who was falling asleep at the wheel. In that case, the driver is clearly responsible, but he is not the only one. So is the contractor that is pushing him too hard, and the company that failed to ensure their contractor was taking sufficient precautions, and so forth.

As a result, it is important to hire an attorney to help you identify all possible liable parties, persons, or companies in order to ensure you are able to claim the full compensation you deserve after the wrongful death of a loved one.

Can Punitive Damages Be Awarded In A Wrongful Death Case In California?

Sometimes, when someone has behaved in a purposefully reckless way, a judge or jury will assign additional damages to punish the person or entity responsible.

However, in a wrongful death case, punitive damages are generally unavailable unless the wrongdoer’s conduct is considered a felony.

Are There Any Exceptions Or Limitations To Filing A Wrongful Death Claim In California?

The most significant limitation to wrongful death claims is your relationship with the deceased. You are required to have another legal term here, standing. In other words, you must be in the class of relatives or dependents that are allowed to recover damages.

Unfortunately, no matter how close you might be with someone, whether you are just friends or even a significant other like a boyfriend or girlfriend, you cannot recover any damages unless you have a legally binding relationship.

What Factors Are Considered When Determining The Value Of A Wrongful Death Settlement In California?

Unlike in personal injury cases, where you are looking directly at the harm caused by your own injury, wrongful death claims look at the harm caused to you as a result of someone else’s death.

This means that in addition to all the factors mentioned above, the strength of your relationship and closeness to the deceased is an important part of the value of a case. A jury will inevitably make a decision based on how they see the relationship between you and the person who died. Sometimes, this will be obvious if it is a spouse or parent, but other times far more complex.

This brings us to a second factor in determining the value of a wrongful death claim: anticipating the decision of a jury. Since any wrongful death case could, in theory, go in front of a jury, even during the settlement negotiation phase with the insurance company, it will be important to think about what a jury might decide.

You have to weigh the chance of a jury deciding against you and the cost of litigation against whatever concession on the size of the settlement the insurance company is asking for when deciding to take the offer or refuse and go to court. Sometimes, a settlement, even a lower one, can end up putting more money in your pockets than an expensive trial, where you lose costs to experts, preparation, and, of course, attorney fees.

The other argument in favor of a settlement, especially for wrongful death claims, is that trials can become very, very emotional. Reaching an adequate settlement is usually a less stressful and painful option if it can be done so that the person’s heirs don’t have to go through debates about their relationship in open court.

Either way, you will need a good attorney to take on the insurance company involved and make sure you get a fair offer or success in court. Not just for recovering the financial compensation but also ensuring justice is done for your lost loved one.

For more information on Wrongful Death Claims In California, a FREE initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (415) 966-4471 (San Francisco Office) | (831) 387-7871 (Monterey Office) today.

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