Losing a loved one to someone else's negligence, recklessness, or wrongful actions is quite devastating. Coming to terms with this loss may be difficult, especially if the deceased individual played a huge role (whether financially or emotionally) in your life. The LA Personal Injury Law Firm helps in filing wrongful death suits for heirs like you across Los Angeles, CA seeking relief. Everything you need to know about a wrongful death lawsuit is covered in this Article.
Understanding California’s Wrongful Death Law
Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 is California’s law on wrongful death. Under this law, families can recover damages when their loved one died due to someone else’s wrongful actions. Wrongful damages may include amounts the individual would earn as income and funeral/burial expenses. They may also include compensation for the lost support or companionship the deceased provided.
Individuals allowed to collect compensation for wrongful death include the deceased family members and personal representative. Family members, in this case, may include the deceased's children, domestic partner, and surviving spouse. Under CCP 377.60(b). A wrongful death suit may be filed in the same way as a loss of consortium suit. Loss of consortium is a situation in which a registered domestic partner or spouse losses the intimacy or companionship of their living partner as a result of someone else’s wrongful actions.
Wrongful Death Vs. Survival Cause of Action
You can file a wrongful death suit with a survival cause of action as highlighted under CCP 377.30. When an individual dies as a result of an intentional wrongful act, negligence or recklessness, the surviving family members can sue for wrongful death and survival. A survival cause of action is one brought by the estate to recoup the losses endured by the victim before succumbing to a wrongful act.
Unlike a survival action, a wrongful death lawsuit usually compensates the victim’s family for their losses. A survival action allows the victim’s estate to sue for losses the deceased sustained as a result of someone’s wrongful act before he/she died. You may recover medical bills, personal property damage, or lost wages in a survival action. These damages must have been sustained before the death and after the wrongful act.
For instance, if an elderly person passes away due to the abuse or neglect in a nursing home, the immediate family members can pursue a survival action. Another case may involve a person dying in an ambulance while being rushed to the hospital for sustaining a gun wound. An example of a wrongful death case would involve a construction worker dying instantly at work after being injured by a scaffolding that was incorrectly installed on a construction site.
What Type of Acts Would Support a Wrongful Death Claim?
The surviving family members can pursue a wrongful death lawsuit for any claim based on an intentional wrongful act, recklessness, gross negligence, or negligence. Wrongful acts may include drowning, car accidents, assault and battery, slip and fall accidents, and pedestrian knock-downs. Others include medical malpractice, child abuse/neglect, elder abuse/neglect, and murder/manslaughter. Discussed below are ways these acts lay grounds for suing for wrongful death in California.
Over 200,000 people sustain injuries every year in California due to car accidents. Victims of these accidents incur thousands of dollars on car repair bills, lost wages, and medical bills. The driver that caused the collision is responsible for damages or injuries sustained by the other passengers or drivers. The fault is determined by considering the negligent driver who caused the car accident.
Auto car crashes may also result from driverless vehicle malfunctions, hazardous road conditions, and defective car parts. Hiring a personal injury lawyer can help you get an insurer to settle the costs for your damages in full. A surviving family may also recoup the damages after losing their loved one to a car accident.
Slip and Fall Accidents
Slip and fall accidents, which fall under premises liability accidents, may arise due to a person’s negligence. A person may be negligent for the accident when he/she is aware of the hazardous condition posing risks to other people in a particular property. The person will also be considered negligent for failing to repair the property, protect the property against the condition, or give sufficient warnings about the condition.
Common causes for this type of accident include loose carpeting, plumbing leaks, broken furniture, and uneven floors. Others include spills, uncovered cords/cables, lack of warning signs, and failure to adequately rope off a construction site. As a member of the surviving family, you will be entitled to compensatory damages in a wrongful death lawsuit based on a slip and fall accident.
If your loved one’s wrongful death was due to negligence on the side of the healthcare professionals, you can sue for wrongful death. The basis of your wrongful death suit will be medical malpractice. Medical malpractice is defined as an omission to act or a negligent act by a health care practitioner in service delivery that leads to wrongful death or personal injury.
You can only base the lawsuit on medical malpractice is the services provided by the health care practitioner were within the range for which he/she is licensed. All state-licensed health care providers and facilities should comply with the California medical malpractice laws. The practitioners include doctors, nurses, psychologists, chiropractors, pharmacists, and physical therapists, among others. Facilities covered under these laws include laboratories, clinics, and hospitals.
Drowning can be defined as death brought by suffocation when the lungs get occupied with water. Ways of preventing drowning accidents include child supervision around a pool of water and life jacket use. If the deceased was swimming in a private pool, the wrongful death suit may focus on the failure of the property owner to have adequate swimming safety measures in place.
Walking across the roads in California is becoming dangerous every day since the number of pedestrian knock-down cases is increasing. Most of the pedestrians struck by motor vehicles die on the spot or succumb to the injuries when taken to hospital. You may bring a wrongful death suit for this case against the driver or individual who was at fault when the accident occurred. It is also possible to direct the lawsuit to the relevant highway authorities for failing to make the road safe for public use.
Murder or Manslaughter
Murder is defined as the unlawful killing (premeditated or not) of an individual by another. Manslaughter, on the other hand, is the crime in which a person is killed in circumstances that do not amount to murder or without malice aforethought. Whether the deceased succumbed to murder or manslaughter, you can sue the perpetrator for wrongful death. Criminal actions can also be brought to the perpetrator after solving the wrongful death lawsuit.
Damages Recoverable in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The purpose of wrongful death damages is to compensate heirs of a deceased individual for the value of the support they would expect to receive from their loved one. As compensatory damages, they include both non-economic and economic losses endured by the heirs. Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, while economic ones include lost wages and medical bills as discussed below:
Compensatory damages to which you can attach a dollar amount are referred to as economic damages. In a wrongful death suit, they help cover the out-of-pocket costs the heirs spent or would have gotten following their loved one's death. They include lost earning capacity, medical bills, lost wages, and property damage.
Lost wages are meant to compensate the surviving family members for occupational income their loved one would have earned if he/she was alive. The benefits may include bonuses, commissions, overtime pay, salary, self-employment income, and raises. Other forms of income, such as profit sharing or 401K contributions and lost perks/benefits may also count as lost wages.
Since they do not focus on out-of-pocket expenses, non-economic damages cannot be attached to any dollar amount. They usually include subjective losses such as inconvenience, emotional distress, loss of life enjoyment and pain and suffering. In this context, heirs can base their wrongful death suit on the subjective losses they suffered following the death of their loved one.
Pain and suffering are part of the most sought after forms of non-economic damages. Since there is no standard for determining the value non-economic damages hold, a formula will not be used for this award. However, the jury will expect you (the plaintiff) to prove the degree of pain and suffering you endured or will endure following your loved one's wrongful death.
Statute of Limitations for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The statute of limitations is synonymous with the amount of time a plaintiff has to pursue a lawsuit. If you do not file your suit within the limitations period, you risk losing your legal right to recoup damages. In the State of California, the limitations period varies with the nature of the lawsuit. The statute of limitations for a wrongful death case begins when the victim dies due to someone else’s intentional wrongful actions, recklessness or negligence.
You will have up to two years to make a wrongful death claim in a California civil court. A delayed discovery rule may be applied to a wrongful death case if the plaintiff was unaware of the wrongful acts that lead to the death of their loved one. When this rule is in effect, you can file the lawsuit as late as one year once the wrongful act is determined.
A wrongful death case may be tolled in a situation in which the defendant is legally insane, in prison, out of the state, or under 18 years of age. Tolling helps suspend the statute of limitations for a personal injury case. Once the tolling condition ends, the limitations period will resume or begin to run. Since suits involving tolling are quite complex, consulting a personal injury lawyer can help you determine when or whether to pursue the wrongful death suit.
Planning for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California
A lawsuit is a means to solve a serious dispute between two or more parties. Before pursuing a wrongful death suit, you need to know whether the case is worth pursuing and how and where you will have the paperwork filed. You should also be aware of the process involved in the entire lawsuit.
When to Sue
Ask yourself whether you have a good case or whether you are comfortable with mediation or a compromise settlement. You should also think about whether you can collect the compensation once the lawsuit is over. Based on your interactions with a personal injury attorney, you will discover that there are various legal requirements for a good civil case. In the case of a wrongful death suit, your case should demonstrate the breach of contract and damages suffered.
If your loved one died due to a work-related accident, you may prove that his/her employer failed to provide safe work conditions. Failure to provide safe working conditions may be considered as a breach of an employment contract. Your suit should also focus on recovering compensatory damages for it to suffice in a California civil court.
In Which Court Should You File a Lawsuit?
California’s state laws limit and grant courts the power to hear and rule over cases. Courts operate based on two types of jurisdiction (subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction). Subject matter jurisdiction gives a court the authority to handle a given type of case in a lawsuit. With personal jurisdiction, a court only has the authority over a particular category of defendants.
Consider filing a wrongful death suit in the court with jurisdiction over wrongful death cases. The court should also be located within the area in which the wrongful death took place. If the defendant is a company, you can sue the branch operating within the area in which the victim died.
How to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Once you learn that you can be compensated financially for the death of your loved one, it may motivate you to file a lawsuit against the perpetrator. The State of California allows plaintiffs to bring wrongful death lawsuits against individuals or businesses known to act negligently or recklessly towards human life. Consider having a personal injury lawyer file the suit and represent you in the civil court. The process of suing for wrongful death is as follows:
Get a Copy of the Coroner’s Report and Police Reports
The coroner's report can help you establish the cause of your loved one's death and prove wrongful death. You can retrieve the coroner's phone number from the Internet and call the office to request a copy of the report. The coroner will want to know your loved one's name, the date of death, your name and contact details, and the nature of your relationship with the deceased. Since you may pay a fee to obtain a copy of the report, you should inquire about the fee.
You can get copies of police reports related to the killing or murder of your loved one from the office of your local county clerk at a fee. The police reports will also constitute the names of relevant witnesses to the case. You may find the police reports if your loved one succumbed to a car crash.
Compile Your Financial Documents
Your personal injury will want you to have the most recent tax returns among your financial documents. The deceased's W-2 or 1099 forms for the previous years also help show tax compliance. Copies of documents highlighting the employee benefits your loved one received will also help when asking the defendant to compensate you as a surviving family member.
Gather Medical Bills
Medical bills are part of the economic damages you can seek in a wrongful death lawsuit. Consider collecting receipts showing any treatment your loved one underwent following the defendant’s intentional wrongful act. Gather receipts for doctor and hospital bills, prescriptions, supplies (such as walkers or bandages and funeral expenses.
Collect Evidence Showing Non-Economic Damages
Besides gathering evidence for economic damages such as medical bills, you should do the same for the non-economic damages you want to recover. You may collect evidence proving loss of companionship, guidance, or love to you and the surviving children. Once you are emotionally stable, gather pictures showing your relationship with the victim. The deceased’s children or dependents can also write letters narrating why and how they miss their loved one.
File a Wrongful Death Complaint and Serve a Notice to the Defendant
With your attorney’s assistance, draft a complaint describing the facts related to the wrongful death case. Your personal injury lawyer can file a complaint with a local court and pay a fee for filing it. After filing the complaint, your attorney should send the defendant a notice confirming the filing procedure.
The notice can include a copy of your wrongful death complaint and other useful legal documents. The defendant will only have a 30-day window to draft and file a response to your notice. In response, the individual may deny or admit each allegation based on his/her version of events.
Trial for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The wrongful death lawsuit will enter the discovery phase once the defendant successfully files an answer to your notice. Also known as the fact-finding phase, the discovery phase allows each side in the suit to exchange and request information. Your attorney can ask the defendant for any document related to the suit or send written questions to the defendant in discovery. The fact-finding phase may also involve a face-to-face deposition with questions regarding the case posed to the witnesses.
As a surviving family member of the deceased, you must give a deposition held in a legal office. A court-assigned reporter will be recording your responses, thus the need to be truthful in the deposition. You should also listen carefully to the questions and stay polite and calm throughout the process. Instead of guessing or estimating an answer, simply say that you do not have a response to the question.
The defendant may file a summary judgment motion to solve the case before the trial date reaches. In the motion, the defendant can argue that your legal team lack material facts to support a wrongful death lawsuit. Your attorney can challenge the summary judgment motion by arguing that your case has legal and factual issues.
Going to Trial
Your attorney will advise you on whether a jury trial may work in your favor. If you choose a jury, the judge may vet the prospective jurors and even give your lawyer a chance to vet them. The vetting process will include getting basic background details from them. Qualified jurors will also seat at the trial.
Since you brought a wrongful death suit, your lawyer must present evidence before the defendant’s lawyer. Your legal may call a witness of the wrongful act, medical experts, or the police to testify. You may also testify as a witness. When asked to testify, sit up straight, avoid being emotional, avoid guessing, and speak with clarity. The trial proceeds with the defendant’s lawyer presenting evidence and calling witnesses to the stand.
Before the judge issues the verdict, each attorney will get a chance to give a closing argument. The closing argument should demonstrate how the pieces of evidence presented to support or challenge the case. Your burden of proof is to prove that the defendant was the perpetrator of your loved one's death. The verdict will be read by the judge once both sides have presented their arguments.
Find a Reputable Personal Injury Law Firm Near Me
Meeting the burden of proof in a wrongful death lawsuit can be challenging without the help of a personal injury lawyer. The LA Personal Injury Law Firm caters to the residents of the Los Angeles community looking for help on personal injury lawsuits. Besides wrongful death suits, our firm handles lawsuits regarding car accidents, truck accidents, motorcycle accidents, among other injury claims. Call our Los Angeles Injury Lawyer at 310-935-0089 to ask about our legal services.