California Wrongful Death Law – How to Bring & Win a Lawsuit
California’s wrongful death law allows surviving family members or the estate to sue for damages when a person dies as the result of someone else’s wrongful act – whether the act was negligent, reckless, or intentional. The law is set forth in the statute Code of Civil Procedure 377.60.
A settlement of verdict may pay out damages for:
- Burial and funeral expenses for the decedent,
- Amounts the deceased would have earned as income,
- pain and suffering and disfigurement of the decedent,
- Compensation for the loss of the deceased’s companionship and support.
These cases are similar to a cause of action for “loss of consortium” under California law. Loss of consortium applies in situations in which a spouse or registered domestic partner is deprived of the companionship and intimacy of a living partner due to someone’s wrongful act.
A wrongful death suit is frequently coupled with a California “survival” cause of action under CCP 377.30. Survival causes of actions are brought on behalf of the victim’s estate to compensate for losses suffered by the victim (as opposed to the family) from the wrongful act.
Note that punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death lawsuit in California. The only way to get punitive damages from a wrongdoer is through a survival cause of action.
California Wrongful Death Law
Below, our California personal injury lawyers will discuss:
- 1. Who has standing to sue for wrongful death in California?
- 2. When is a wrongdoer liable for the death?
- 3. What damages can be recovered in a wrongful death case?
- 3.1. Economic damages
- 3.2. Non-economic damages
- 3.3. Can heirs get punitive damages?
- 4. How is a “survival” action different?
- 5. What is the statute of limitations for a California wrongful death claim?
California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 allows the following family members (or their personal representatives) to bring a lawsuit:
- Surviving spouses,
- Domestic partners,1
- Grandchildren (if the deceased person’s children are also deceased),
- Other minor children (such as stepchildren) who were dependent on the deceased for at least 50% of their financial support, and
- Anyone else who would be entitled to the deceased’s property under California’s laws on intestate succession.
Survivors in the state of California can bring a wrongful death action for any type of claim based on negligence, gross negligence, recklessness or an intentional wrongful act.
Wrongful acts that are a cause of death can include (without limitation):
- Car accidents (including being hit by a DUI driver),
- Pedestrian “knock-downs”,
- “Slip-and-fall” accidents,
- Assault and battery,
- Murder or manslaughter,
- Elder abuse or neglect,
- Child abuse or neglect, and
- Medical malpractice.
Heirs can also sue in “strict liability” if their loved one was killed by a dog bite or mauling or defective product in California, even if the defendant was not negligent.2
Note that a person could be found liable for wrongful death even if he/she was acquitted in a related criminal case.
Damages in a California wrongful death case are intended to compensate heirs for the value of the support they could reasonably have expected to receive from the deceased if he or she had lived.
Settlements are typically paid out either as a lump sum (all at once) or as part of a structured settlement with payments being made over time.
Such compensatory damages can include both economic and non-economic losses. We discuss each of these monetary damages in detail, below.
The period for which such damages are recoverable is the shorter of:
- The deceased individual’s life expectancy at the time of the wrongful act, or
- The life expectancy of the plaintiff at the time of the wrongful act.3
Life expectancy is a question of fact for the jury, taking into account all relevant factors including health, lifestyle and occupation.4
“Economic damages” in California can include (without limitation):
- The financial support the deceased would have contributed to the family during their lifetimes;
- The loss of gifts or benefits the heirs could have expected to receive from the deceased;
- Funeral and burial expenses;5 and
- The reasonable value of household services the deceased would have provided.6
“Non-economic damages” can include, without limitation, compensation for the loss of the deceased’s:
- Society and companionship,
- Moral support,
- Training and guidance, and
- Sexual relations.
As of 2022, plaintiffs can also get damages for the decedent’s pain, suffering, or disfigurement.7
There is no fixed standard for deciding the amount of noneconomic damages in a California wrongful death case. A jury can award any amount that is reasonable based on the evidence and common sense.
Oddly, noneconomic damages may not include amounts for the heir’s grief, sorrow or pain and suffering caused by their loved one’s death.8
No. An heir cannot generally recover punitive damages in wrongful death cases under California law.9 (The exception is if the deceased was killed as the result of felony homicide for which the defendant has been convicted).10
Punitive damages may be available, however, through a “survival action” on behalf of the decedent’s estate.11
California wrongful death lawsuits are sometimes combined with a so-called “survival action” under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30.
While a wrongful death lawsuit compensates the deceased person’s surviving family members for their losses, a survival lawsuit lets the heirs sue on behalf of the deceased’s estate.
A survival legal action can compensate the deceased person’s estate for two types of losses:
- Claims unrelated to the death and which the deceased had the right to sue for as of the date of death, and/or
- Claims for the injury that caused the death, provided the person survived those injuries for at least some period of time (no matter how short).
Survival actions are complicated and we discuss them in detail in a separate article. But one important difference is that a survival action can include an award for punitive damages.
Note additionally that these two actions can be, and often are, tried together when they arise out of the same underlying wrongful act.
Example: Martin’s wife, Emma, goes into the hospital for a routine procedure. But the anesthesiologist makes an error and Emma ends up in a coma. One month later, she passes away.
Martin brings two lawsuits against the hospital: a wrongful death action for Martin’s loss of Emma’s income and companionship, and a medical malpractice action, which “survives” Emma’s death.
The California wrongful death statute of limitations and survival actions is two years.
In a wrongful death case, the two-year time period to sue the responsible party “accrues” (starts running) on the date of death.
For survival actions, the estate has a two-year time limit to sue from the later of:
- The date of an injury, or
- Six months after death.
Call us for help…
If someone you love died because of someone else’s wrongful act, we invite you to contact our personal injury attorneys for a free consultation.
As former cops and investigators, our wrongful death lawyers understand how to connect the dots and put together a compelling civil lawsuit for recovering damages during this difficult time.
Call us or fill out the form on this page to speak to one of our knowledgeable California wrongful death attorneys. (We can also assist with bringing Nevada claims and Colorado claims).
Disclaimer: Past results do not guarantee future results.