Wrongful death paperwork at an attorney's desk.

Wrongful Death in California: Lawsuits, Statute of Limitations, and More

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In California, family members of a victim who has died as a result of someone else’s negligence, recklessness, or intentional wrongful act can file a wrongful death lawsuit to recover damages.  There are many different damages that surviving family members or the estate can sue for including burial expenses, pain and suffering, and income that the deceased person would have earned. However, the family must file the lawsuit with California’s civil court within two years to be within the statute of limitations. 

In this article, our team at Forward Law Group provides a detailed explanation of what a wrongful death is, who can file a lawsuit, the statute of limitations, and other key details related to wrongful death accidents. As attorneys with tremendous experience with wrongful death lawsuits in California, our goal is to help readers develop their knowledge about these traumatic accidents. 

What is Wrongful Death?

As defined by the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute:

Wrongful death is a civil cause of action brought by family members and dependents against individuals who knowingly or negligently cause the death of another person. A wrongful death action may be brought against a person also facing criminal charges for the same event, and even if the person is not found guilty of a criminal charge, the person may be found liable for the wrongful death action because it has a lower burden of proof.

Acts leading to wrongful death may be accidental or intentional. As mentioned earlier, wrongful death lawsuits are brought upon someone who caused the death of another person because of negligence or recklessness. Wrongful acts can include:

  • Medical malpractice
  • Car accidents 
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Trips and fall accidents
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Elder abuse or neglect
  • Assault or battery
  • Murder or manslaughter

Wrongful Death Lawsuits in California: Statute of Limitations, Possible Damages, and Other Details

While some states only allow the spouse and children of a victim to file a wrongful death lawsuit, California also allows grandchildren, domestic partners, stepchildren, and anyone else entitled to the deceased’s property under California’s laws to sue. 

California Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Wrongful deaths are covered in the California Code of Civil Procedure Article 6 [337.60 - 337.62].  California has a two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits, beginning at the time of the victim’s death. If the case is not filed in California’ civil court system in the two-year timespan, the family will likely lose the right to file a case at all. 

There are a couple of exceptions to this statute of limitations. One exception includes wrongful death lawsuits as a result of medical malpractice. In the case of medical malpractice, the statute of limitations is earlier between the two:

  • One year from the date of discovery that the cause of death was due to medical negligence; or
  • Three years from the date of death.

The other exception is when the plaintiff in the lawsuit is a government entity or employee. In this case, the family has six months from the date of death to file a claim.

What Damages Can Be Recovered?

There are many different damages that can be recovered as a result of a successful wrongful death lawsuit. These damages fall into two distinct categories: economic and noneconomic damages. According to the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions Form 3921, which familiarizes jurors in wrongful death cases with how compensation for damages work, economic damages include:

  • The financial support, if any, that the deceased person would have contributed to the family during either the life expectancy that the deceased person had before their death or the life expectancy of the deceased person, whichever is shorter; 
  • The loss of gifts or benefits that the plaintiff (e.g. the family member) would have expected to receive from the deceased person; 
  • Funeral and burial expenses; and 
  • The reasonable value of household services that the deceased person would have provided.

According to that same document (Form 3921), non-economic damages that jurors must decide how much compensation to give the family filing the lawsuit compensation for include:

  • The loss of [name of decedent]’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support;
  • The loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations; and 
  • The loss of the deceased person’s training and guidance.

There are a couple of other details related to damages in California wrongful death lawsuits that are important to note. First, there is no set limit or hard cap on damages. The only exception is for non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, which are currently limited to $250,000 (note—this figure will rise to $500,000 in 2023, with gradual increases over 10 years until the amount reaches $1 million, per California’s recently-passed AB 35). 

The second consideration is related to punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant for their actions (versus damages that compensate a plaintiff or victim for the loss they have suffered). Generally, under California law, punitive damages cannot be recovered in wrongful death cases. The only exception, as mentioned in California Civil Code 3294(d), is when the defendant has been convicted of felony homicide.

How to Prove Wrongful Death in California 

A burden of proof describes the legal standard that requires parties to provide evidence to demonstrate that a claim is valid. There are different burdens of proof for different types of cases. Depending on the burden of proof, the plaintiff must establish a certain amount of proof through evidence. Because wrongful death is a civil matter in California, the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence. This means that in a wrongful death lawsuit, the family of the victim must prove it is at least 51 percent likely that it was in fact a wrongful death that occurred. 

Establishing Proof of Negligence

Many wrongful deaths are the result of someone’s negligence. Proving negligence is an essential aspect of winning a wrongful death lawsuit. Simply stated, negligence entails a person failing to use a reasonable level of care, which ultimately results in someone’s wrongful death. In court, families often must demonstrate four specific elements to prove a defendant’s negligence:

  • Duty of Care, which means that there exists a legal duty that the defendant owed to the victim. 
  • Breach of Duty, which shows the defendant breached or violated that duty of care. Using the previous example of a driver, a breach of duty may be driving significantly over the speed limit. 
  • Causation, which shows the defendant’s breach of duty was the cause of the victim’s death. 
  • Damages, which provide evidence of how the family has sustained damages as a result of the victim’s death. 

Example. When a driver is operating a vehicle, they have a duty of care to operate their vehicle safely and in accordance with all traffic laws. If that driver ignores posted speed limit signs and drives significantly over the speed limit, this can be considered a breach of duty. Let’s say that the driver was unable to come to a stop because of their high speed and blew past a red light, unexpectedly hitting another vehicle that was safely traveling through a green light and resulting in the death of the safe driver. If the driver had not passed the red light at high speeds, they would not have crashed into the other vehicle and caused the death of the victim. This could show causation. If the family can show how the victim's death caused economic and non-economic damages, this would prove the fourth element. 

Wrongful Death Settlements

As we mentioned previously, California does not have a limit or cap on wrongful death settlements that a jury can decide to award. In deciding the settlement amount, the jury will typically consider various factors such as:

  • The age of the victim
  • The number of dependents that the victim had
  • The amount of financial support the victim provided
  • Details and the specific circumstances of the accident

In the case of a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the victims may be paid through one lump sum or a structured settlement (paid out in increments over a set time). Most often, families do not have to list compensation from a wrongful death lawsuit as earned income. This is because settlements received for death are nontaxable under federal law. 

Getting the Help of a Lawyer for a California Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult things in life, particularly when it is a wrongful death that occurred due to someone else’s negligence. If you are looking to file a wrongful death lawsuit, Forward Law Group can help you get justice for the death of your loved one. We understand the weight of the situation and will work around the clock to get the best outcome possible. Below, we describe a couple of ways that the guidance of a skilled law firm such as Forward Law Group can help you have a successful wrongful death lawsuit. 

Building the Strongest Possible Case to Prove Wrongful Death

As evident from the process we described earlier, strong and convincing evidence is required to prove wrongful death. One aspect of providing convincing evidence is collecting, synthesizing, and presenting many different documents including police reports, death certificates, witness statements, financial records, and tax forms, among many others. In some cases, it also requires consulting with and getting statements from investigators and external subject matter experts. Our lawyers work diligently to build the strongest possible case that provides the necessary level of proof and evidence in the most compelling manner. 

Comprehensive Knowledge of State and Federal Codes, Laws, and Policies Related to Wrongful Deaths

A key aspect of building the strongest possible case is having a deep understanding of, and, knowing how to draw on the thousands of codes, laws, and policies that have been put into place by the California and US governments. Furthermore, our attorneys at Forward Law Group see it as a duty to stay abreast of new rules and laws that are introduced. This comprehensive knowledge also allows us to navigate families through technical language and processes, making sure they have all the information they require in a way that is easy to understand. 

Connect With Forward Law Group Today

No matter where you are located in California, Forward Law Group is here for you. Our commitment is to be your trusted partner throughout this difficult process, guiding you through every detail with your best interests in mind, and helping you get the justice deserved for your loved one. Recovering the maximum compensation for the psychological, emotional, and financial loss will be our number one focus. If you have more questions about a wrongful death lawsuit, want information on how to file a claim, or are interested in having us review your case, we invite you to give our team a call today at (818) 471-8389.