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Understanding Wrongful Death: How It Works and Who Can Sue

Wrongful death is undeniably one of the most heart-wrenching situations anyone can experience. The pain of losing a loved one due to someone else’s negligence is a burden that no one should bear.

In California, wrongful death cases are all too common. The California Traffic Safety Data System (TIMS) recorded over 4,300 fatalities in 2022 due to various factors, such as drunk and distracted driving and speeding.

If you or someone you know has suffered the devastating loss of a family member through wrongful death, it’s crucial to understand that legal recourse is available. You can seek justice and hold the responsible party accountable for their actions. Let’s start with the basics—what is wrongful death? And what is a wrongful death lawsuit?

What Constitutes Wrongful Death in California?

In California, wrongful death is a civil lawsuit that arises when an individual dies due to someone else’s negligence or wrongful actions. There are two types of wrongful death cases:

  1. Negligence – This type occurs when someone’s careless or reckless actions lead to another person’s death. Negligent examples include car accidents, defective products, slip and fall cases, and pet attacks.
  2. Malpractice – This happens when a professional—like a doctor, lawyer, or accountant—fails to meet the expected standard of care, leading to someone’s death.

Damages in a wrongful death case also fall into two categories: economic and non-economic. The former include funeral expenses, medical bills, lost wages, inheritance, and household services. Meanwhile, the latter encompasses intangible losses such as loss of love and companionship, emotional distress, mental anguish, and moral damages.

Who Can Sue for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, the following people can file a wrongful death lawsuit before Californian courts:

  • Surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children
    The deceased’s immediate family—surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren—is entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit in California.
  • Intestate successor
    If the deceased victim had no surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, or issue of deceased children, the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit may go to their intestate successor. They are usually another family member, such as a parent or sibling.
  • Putative spouse
    A putative spouse, with a good faith belief in a valid marriage with the deceased, can file a wrongful death claim. Even if the marriage is found invalid, the putative spouse may still have a claim.
  • Financial dependents
    In some cases, a person financially dependent on the deceased—even if not related by blood or marriage—may have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit. They can include individuals like stepchildren, a non-marital partner, or anyone who relied on the deceased for financial support.

How Do Wrongful Death Lawsuits Work?

If you’re considering filing a wrongful death lawsuit, you must undergo the right process to obtain justice. Check the steps below to learn how wrongful death lawsuits work. 

  1. Hiring a wrongful death lawyer in California
    Navigating the California legal system on wrongful deaths can be overwhelming and challenging. As such, hire a wrongful death lawyer who knows California law. They can guide you through the legal process, assess your case’s strengths, and help you explore the complexities of the legal system.
  1. Identifying the cause of action and statute of limitations
    This step sets the legal boundaries and grounds for your wrongful death lawsuit. In identifying the cause of action, there must be a legal right, the right was breached, and death resulted from that breach. 

Collaborate with your attorney to investigate, gather evidence, and establish whether negligence or wrongful actions played a role in the tragedy. With this information, they can help you build a strong case and prove that the defendant owed and breached a duty of care.

File the lawsuit within two years from the date of death since that’s the statute of limitations in California. However, exceptions may apply based on certain circumstances. Consult with your lawyer to adhere to the appropriate timeline.

  1. Proving the elements of negligence
    To succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit, you must prove that the defendant owed and breached a duty of care to the deceased. Your attorney will gather evidence, interview witnesses, and consult experts to establish these elements.
  2. Determining the recoverable damages
    Your attorney will also establish the extent of damages you can recover. This may include economic damages like medical expenses, funeral costs, and lost income and non-economic damages such as pain and suffering or loss of companionship. The specific amount depends on the circumstances of the case.
  3. Defining settlements and compensations
    Once you and your lawyer have proven the elements of negligence, you may attempt to settle with the defendant or their insurance company. Your case will go to trial if you can’t reach a settlement.

    If the lawsuit or settlement is successful, you and other eligible family members or dependents will receive compensation based on the agreement or the court’s decision.

Defend Your Right to Justice

Navigating wrongful death lawsuits is challenging and often marked by emotional and legal complexities. While neither money nor legal procedures will ever completely compensate for the tragic loss of a loved one, seeking justice through these avenues can give you a semblance of closure. It can also help you cover medical bills, funeral expenses, or lost income.

If you’ve been involved in a wrongful death case and need an attorney to guide you, contact us at RMD Law. We have a team of experienced wrongful death lawyers ready to provide the tireless representation you deserve. 

Contact us for a free case evaluation. 

Aria Miran
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