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How is Wrongful Death Decided in California?

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Posted on April 11, 2023

The death of a family member always feels wrong to the loved ones left behind, but when the death was preventable and caused by someone else’s negligence, reckless behavior, or purposeful wrongdoing, it’s particularly traumatic for the surviving family members. Pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit can be a daunting task to face while a family is deeply grieving a sudden loss, but in instances when a loved one’s death occurred due to someone else’s fault and leaves economic and intangible damages like anguish and emotional trauma, the surviving family members deserve compensation and justice.

If your loved one was lost due to someone else’s actions and you’re considering filing a wrongful death action in California, it helps to understand how the courts decide this type of case.

What is Wrongful Death in California?

If an individual’s death was the direct result of the actions of another person or entity (such as a business, organization, or facility) then a close surviving family member such as a spouse, parent, or adult child, may choose to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the person at fault for the death. Wrongful death lawsuits are filed in the same circumstances that an injury victim might file a personal injury lawsuit for themselves had they survived the injury. Some common causes of death resulting in a family member filing a wrongful death claim in California include:

  • Car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle, and pedestrian accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Workplace accidents
  • Falls
  • Defective product injuries
  • Commercial premises accidents 
  • Criminal violence/assaults

Wrongful death lawsuits progress independently of any criminal charges in the same case and with or without a criminal conviction. Criminal action is separate from a civil or tort claim.

How Do California Courts Decide on Wrongful Death Claims?

Just as in deciding a personal injury case, in a wrongful death lawsuit, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff who must show liability on the part of the at-fault person. The court’s decision on a wrongful death claim depends on determining liability by asking the following questions:

  • Did the defendant owe a duty of care to the wrongful death victim to take reasonable measures to keep them safe, such as a driver’s duty to follow traffic laws or a business owner’s duty to have safe premises?
  • Did the defendant breach that duty through an act of negligence or wrongdoing?
  • Did the action directly cause the death?
  • Did the death cause significant economic and non-economic damages to the surviving family members?

When each of these questions is answered affirmatively, the at-fault party meets California’s criteria for liability in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Damages in a California Wrongful Death Lawsuit

When the plaintiff’s case meets the burden of proof of liability on the part of the at-fault party, the result may be an out-of-court settlement or a court award for the following damages:

  • Medical expenses from before the death
  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Loss of income for the number of earning years the victim had remaining to them
  • Loss of benefits such as healthcare and pension
  • Grief and anguish

As difficult as it may be to take on a wrongful death lawsuit during a time of grief, by hiring an attorney with years of experience in wrongful death lawsuits, you can focus on moving forward from your grief while your San Diego wrongful death attorney focuses on maximizing your chances of recovering damages and gaining justice for your family’s loss.