In California, the law as it relates to claims for wrongful death is purely a creature of statute, and it sometimes may seem complicated and perhaps illogical. When a loved one has been lost because of the wrongful conduct of another, it is critical to understand your rights and perhaps those of other surviving loved ones. A "wrongful death" occurs anytime it is caused by the negligence or intentional misconduct of another. This includes carelessness such as that committed by a physician in failing to timely treat a curable condition or in performing surgery carelessly, resulting in death. Automobile accidents, slip/trip and falls may lead to an untimely death, and the decedent's loved ones would possess a valid claim.
Sometimes, an intentional act (such as a serious assault and battery) will result in death, and the same rights would follow. Perhaps one of the most confusing areas of wrongful death law involves the determination of who has "standing" to bring a suit. The standing, or right, to bring a wrongful death action depends on statutes having to do with the order in which certain heirs are entitled to the property of the deceased. For example, most often in a wrongful death action the surviving spouse and children are those with standing. Ordinarily, other family members such as the parents and siblings of the victim do not have the right to bring such a lawsuit. However, there are exceptions to this, and complex rules exist to determine who is entitled to recover damages.
For example, if there are no children and no spouse but there is a "domestic partner" then it is the surviving partner who is entitled to bring suit. If neither the spouse nor the children are alive, then the party or parties with standing would include the surviving grandchildren. This is true even if the mother and father of the deceased have been left behind, unless one or both were being supported by the decedent. To complicate matters even further, the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid may have standing to bring suit. Now, once the appropriate parties with standing have been determined, the next issue to be addressed is that of the damages. It should be remembered that damages in these and other personal injury actions fall into two general categories: economic and non-economic.
The former has to do with such things as funeral and burial expenses, lost support, etc. The non-economic damages include those for the loss of the relationship between the deceased and the surviving loved ones. More specifically, the economic damages include: 1. The financial support, if any, that the decedent contributed to the family during either the life expectancy that decedent had before his/her death or the life expectancy of surviving loved one, whichever is shorter; 2. The loss of gifts or benefits that the loved one would have expected to receive from the deceased; 3. Funeral and burial expenses; and 4.
The reasonable value of household services that the decedent would have provided. With regard to non-economic damages, the law limits recovery to the following: 1. The loss of the decedent's love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support; and 2.
The loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations, or 3. The loss of the deceased's training and guidance. The rules go on further to exclude: the loved one's grief, sorrow, or mental anguish; the decedent's pain and suffering; or the poverty or wealth of the surviving party. Generally, the statutes and case decisions do not permit recovery of punitive damages in a wrongful death action. However, there is an exception to this where the death results from a felony homicide for which the defendant has been convicted.
(California Civil Code, § 3294(d).) Because there are sometimes competing and conflicting interests among surviving parties and since it is often difficult to ascertain the individual losses sustained, the court (judge) and not the jury is generally the one to allocate any recovery among the survivors. (Canavin v. Pacific Southwest Airlines (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d 512) Where the matter is tried to a jury with more than one loved one presenting a claim, the jury awards an amount for all survivors which is then divided by the court.
Of course, when a wrongful death action is settled prior to trial it will likely be an agreement among the family members that resolves this issue. Where there are minor children involved, the court must approve the settlement and allocation to the children. The above is but an overview of the law generally as it relates to wrongful death actions in California and should not be construed as the rendering of legal advice as to any particular case or claim.
Because of the law's complexity, an experienced trial attorney should be consulted whenever you have a question about your rights, especially when faced with such a tragic loss.
For over 15 years, Paul W. Ralph has been an Orange County personal injury attorney dealing with court cases and lawsuits in California. Because of the importance of the cases handled in the past as a product liability lawyer Orange County and high profile personal injury cases, Mr. Ralph has appeared on CNN, has been quoted on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Journal and his cases have made the cover of Trials Digest.