Amidst the pain and grief of losing your loved one, you can find comfort, justice, and closure by filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the at-fault party. We at the LA Personal Injury Law Firm could help you maneuver the process of building your case and recover the damages you suffer due to your loved one’s death. Our Los Angeles attorneys will guide you on the right steps to take when filing the lawsuit and what to expect.
An Overview of Wrongful Death in California
Wrongful death occurs when someone else’s negligence, carelessness, or intentional act causes your loved one’s unlawful death. Wrongful death often leaves you or other dependents of the deceased in confusion, bereft of companionship, and lack of financial resources. You and dependents or family members of the deceased can obtain justice for your loved one and compensation for their unlawful death through a wrongful death claim.
The Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 provides guidelines under for the bereft to pursue a claim against the party or parties responsible for their loved one's wrongful death. The family or relatives of the deceased could file a wrongful death lawsuit if a loved one died due to another person’s negligence or misconduct. The persons allowed to bring a wrongful death claim in California include:
- The surviving spouse
- Domestic partners
If the above persons are not alive, the following people can claim wrongful death damages:
- Other children including step-children who were at least 50% dependent on the deceased
- Any person entitled to the deceased property under California's intestate succession laws
Negligence occurs when a person or entity fails to perform the duty of care to another person, causing the person's death directly or indirectly. Some of the negligent actions include:
- The manufacture, release, and distribution of defective products
- Defective drugs and medical devices
- Medical malpractice
- Automobile accidents
- Slip and fall accidents
- Workplace accidents
You need to talk to a competent attorney if another party’s negligence contributed to or caused the wrongful death of your loved one. Negligence is not the only basis of a wrongful death case. A death that occurs due to defective products falls under strict liability theory. Here, the products’ manufacturer failed to follow protocols required to design and manufacture safe products.
Wrongful death lawsuits have helped many families recover from the financial burden their loved ones’ premature deaths cause. Compensation is especially crucial because the deceased are breadwinners, supportive partners, parents, and children. Before their deaths, the dead played incredible roles like providing financial help or assisting with household activities such as childcare. Each wrongful death case entails unique facts, and the courts make rulings depending on a case by case basis. Examples of common features in wrongful death lawsuits include the damages you receive, the filling procedure, and the steps you take to build a strong case.
The damages you can recover from a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of parental care and guidance
- Medical costs
- Lost wages
- Lost earning capacity
- Burial and funeral costs
Usually, you can pursue a civil suit against the defendant or multiple defendants, whether they are convicted in criminal court. Civil courts have a lower standard of proof that requires you to prove the defendant acted with negligence. This standard is lower than that of criminal courts that require prosecutors to prove that the defendant committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since the initiative to file a wrongful death case lies on the bereaved, you must adhere to the set Statute of Limitations to ensure you have a chance to recover damages. The Statute of Limitations for California's wrongful death lawsuits is two years.
Building a wrongful death case requires planning and expertise to ensure that you receive fair compensation for your claim. Some of the steps involved in building your case include:
- Hiring an attorney
- Collecting evidence
- Calculating the value of the claim
- Negotiating with the responsible parties
1. Hiring an Attorney
It would be deceptive to think you can build a strong wrongful death case on your own. You could collect the evidence at the scene, or express the kind of pain you are experiencing from the loss, but you need a professional lawyer to guide you through the legal processes.
You need to understand the timelines, evidence standards, regulations, and the court processes for wrongful deaths. Wrongful death attorneys have a deep understanding of the legal aspects of these lawsuits and can ensure you follow the right procedures. You do not have two chances to recover the damages from the loss of your loved one.
Hiring an attorney can be as overwhelming as the loss itself, but with the right tips, you can quickly identify the ideal attorney to represent you. Some of the steps you need to follow when hiring an attorney include:
- Ask for referrals from another attorney you have worked with, your friends, family, or colleagues. These people can point you to firms or attorneys that helped them recover damages for their wrongful death
- Check local and online directories for lawyers.
- Check the reviews and ratings of each lawyer and narrow down your results. Some of the parameters you should use to narrow down your list include previous success in settling wrongful death cases, the sum of these settlements, customer service, and the attorney’s
- Once you settle on a list of attorneys, call or visit their offices for a consultation. Many wrongful death attorneys in California offer a free consultation. Use the meeting to learn more about the lawyer, customer service, results, licensing, and pricing. Ask about your case and gauge how conversant the attorney is with your area of concern.
- You can prepare a list of questions or concerns that you would like the attorney to address before the consultation.
- Choose the attorney you feel is the right fit for your case based on the experience, negotiation skills, customer service, and the cost. When discussing the costs, learn about the full pricing package, including any out-of-pocket expenses you need to cover.
Do not be in a hurry to hire an attorney that you pick as the first available person. Ensure the lawyer could meet your needs to avoid the frustration of working with the wrong attorney. Make sure that you hire an attorney who has worked with similar cases before. The nature of a wrongful death lawsuit could vary depending on the cause of death. For example, if your loved one died due to a workplace or occupational hazard, you will need an attorney who is conversant with California's labor laws.
The benefits of working with an attorney in building your case include:
- An attorney will save you time and money you could have spent representing yourself. The attorney will take care of the legal end of things, thus leaving you with sufficient time to grieve your loss and get your life together.
- Having an attorney increases the likelihood of obtaining a fair settlement, especially in cases where the at-fault party is unwilling to admit fault.
- A wrongful attorney has the resources to dedicate to pursuing your case as most work on contingency and are paid if you win. Therefore, you do not have to worry about paying legal fees at the beginning of the case. However, you should agree on how much your attorney would get after a settlement.
2. Determining Liability for the Death
Knowing the party liable for the death of your loved one allows you to identify who to sue. Liability arises when the defendant has a duty of care towards the deceased. To determine liability, you need to determine that a breach of the duty of care occurred. For example, if an employer fails to provide safe working conditions, and your loved one dies due to that safety hazard, then the employer is liable for the death.
You also need to know what happened during the death to establish the at-fault party’s liability extent. For instance, if a drunk driver drives off their lane and crashes into your loved one's car, causing death, the drunk driver is liable for wrongful death. However, if you later establish that the brakes in your loved one's car failed, the manufacturer could also be held accountable.
Therefore, you must investigate all factors contributing to the accident to establish the responsible parties. In case multiple parties are responsible for your loved one’s death, you can file a wrongful death claim against all of them.
3. Collecting Evidence
Your gut feeling or desire to seek justice is not sufficient to convince the jury that you deserve compensation. You will need proof that your accusations are right. The kind of evidence you need will depend on the specific case. For instance, you might need an autopsy for a medical malpractice case, while it might not be necessary in an auto accident case.
The proof required must satisfy the elements of the case. These elements differ depending on whether the action that caused the death of your loved one falls under intentional acts, negligent acts, or product liability.
The elements you need to prove in a wrongful death due to negligence include:
- The defendant owed the deceased a duty of care.
- He or she breached this duty.
- The breach caused or contributed to the death of your loved one.
- You suffered losses due to the death of the victim.
When wrongful death resulted from intentional acts of harm or violence, you will have to prove the following elements:
- The defendant intended to commit the act.
- He or she made contact with the deceased with the latter's consent.
- The contact caused or contributed to the death of the victim.
Cases in which intentional acts can result in wrongful death include when a person commits crimes such as assault, homicide, manslaughter, or murder.
For product liability lawsuits, you need to show that:
- The product had a defect.
- It was used reasonably.
- Your loved one was killed by using the product.
Also, you need to present evidence such as the events of the accident or incident that killed your loved one and establish that you suffered damages.
Some of the supporting materials that you can present as evidence include:
- Physical evidence
- Photographs or videos
- Accident reports
- Testimony of an eyewitness
- Expert testimony
In some cases, you might need the help of professional investigators to determine the cause of death. Experts such as:
- Accident reconstructionist
- Forensic experts
- Medical investigators (including conducting an autopsy)
These experts can conduct different investigations depending on the cause of the wrongful death case. The common investigations seek to collect evidence for death due to medical malpractice, workplace hazards, product liability, and accidents.
You must also present evidence that you suffered damages from death. Such evidence could include:
- The testimony of your loved ones about the relationship between you and the deceased
- Documentation such as letters your and the deceased shared
- Visual evidence such as videos and photographs that document the relationship between you and the deceased
4. Calculating the Value of the Claim
Having a clear understanding of what your claim might be worth is essential in building your case. You have to know what to expect so that you negotiate the fair value of your case. Two types of damages, economic and non-economic, are available for wrongful death cases. Some of the economic damages you can recover include:
- The financial support that the deceased could have provided or contributed to the family had he or she lives. These damages will include lost wages.
- Gifts or benefits that the bereaved suffered due to the death for instance loss of insurance benefits
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Household services that the deceased would have provided
The non-economic damages will include compensation for:
- Loss of the love, companionship, protection, comfort, assistance, care, society and moral support that the deceased would have provides
- Loss of enjoyment of sexual relations
- Loss of guidance and training
Calculating damages will depend on the set laws, as well as factors like:
- The life expectancy of the deceased: the law advises that the life expectancy should be evaluated based on the average life expectancy of people of that age, the deceased's health, age, habits, lifestyle, occupation, and activities.
- The circumstances surrounding the death
- The evidence presented (the stronger your cases, the higher the compensation your get)
- The income the deceased earned before his or her death
- The education and training of your loved one
- The value of benefits such as pension or life insurance
- The age and situation of the deceased’s dependents
- The career potential the deceased has including the chances of a promotion, raise or changes in income over the career life of the deceased
Your attorney will help you through the process of calculating the damages the defendant owes you. Courts calculate the value of economic damages before calculating non-economic damages. Economic damages such as the funeral, burial, and medical costs are totaled from the actual receipts.
You might need the help of experts such as accountants, economists, actuaries, and vocational experts to establish the value of earnings, benefits less the expenses that would not have benefited the bereaved.
The value of household services provided by the decedent will be valued from the cost of similar services. For example, if the deceased cared for the children while the spouse worked, the cost of childcare will form the basis of calculating these damages.
Non-economic damages vary greatly depending on how convincing your case is. However, most courts get the value of non-economic damages by multiplying the economic damages by a number between one and five.
You cannot recover punitive damages in California unless you file a survivor’s action against the at-fault party. However, if the deceased died through a felony homicide for which the defendant was convicted, you can recover punitive damages.
Most attorneys are capable of calculating the estimated value of your case based on the facts available. Having such a sum before your file a lawsuit is crucial so that you do not settle for the first plausible sum that the defendant offers.
With this value in mind, you can decide whether to pursue the case or not. If you choose to pursue the case, the next step is developing a negotiation strategy with your attorney to recover these damages from the at-fault party.
5. Negotiations with the Responsible Parties
The defendant(s) will rarely pay the right amount when you send a demand letter for damages. Therefore, your attorney and the defendant will negotiate the case for a settlement. Your attorney's negotiation skills will set him or her apart from the rest and determine the final value of your case. If he or she is good at negotiating, chances are that you will recover compensation you deserve for the death of your loved one.
The first step in the negotiations is sending the demand letter to the defendant or the defendant’s insurance company. In most cases, the defendant or his or her insurance company will respond with a low-ball offer, which in most cases, barely covers the value of the claim.
Sending a demand letter before filing a lawsuit gives you the advantage of reducing the costs of litigation. In most cases, negotiations follow the demand letter, and it could be the furthest you case goes before you settle for a fair amount. However, if the defendant is unwilling to compensate you for the damages they caused, you can file a lawsuit and proceed to trial.
Litigation begins with filing a complaint, which you will serve the defendant. The defendant must respond to the complaint within the required timeline. Failure to respond will result in a default judgment by the court against the defendant. The defendant will provide an answer that either accepts or denies part or all of the plaintiff’s statements and files a counterclaim in some cases.
The next step is usually the discovery process, where each side presents its evidence and position. The two sides will evaluate the evidence, and in some cases, settle the case. The parties can also clarify the issues that they agree on, leaving the contentious issues for litigation.
Cases that do not settle through negotiations end up in a court trial. Such trials are usually rare, but when they happen, it is always best to be ready to handle them. Therefore, it is good to hire an attorney who has experience and confidence in going to trial when the circumstances call for it.
The trial follows certain legal procedures and requires that each side present evidence to support their case. The jury will evaluate the evidence and determine whether you deserve compensation for the wrongful death, and the amount the defendant should pay.
In some cases, the defendant could raise counterclaims, claiming that the deceased was responsible for his or her death. A case where someone could have contributed to his or her death includes when a distracted driver is involved in a collision with a speeding truck on a stormy day.
Your attorney should be ready for such counterclaims as they can result in the denial or reduction of your settlement.
Find a Wrongful Death Attorney Near Me
Building a strong wrongful death case can make a significant difference in the settlement you receive, not to mention the sense of justice for the death of your loved one. Building the case depends on your efforts and those of your attorney. Therefore, you must invest in a knowledgeable and experienced legal representative who will ensure you receive the compensation you deserve.
The LA Personal Injury Law Firm is dedicated to ensuring that families receive the compensation they deserve after losing a loved one unlawfully. We help our Los Angeles clients find closure, justice, and financial relief for the sudden and unlawful loss of their loved ones. Contact us today at 310-935-0089 if you need help with a wrongful death case.