Losing your family member or significant other, especially if the demise happened due to someone else’s negligent acts, can be emotionally challenging. After grieving, you could want to file a claim against the liable party. One of these options is determining if you have a valid claim that could help you pay for the funeral expenses and daily financial needs. To find out if you have a valid case, you need to consult a skilled wrongful death attorney.
If you are in this situation in Los Angeles, CA, reach out to The LA Personal Injury Law Firm as soon as possible to talk to one of our expert lawyers. Your attorney will evaluate your case, determine if you can file the claim. If the statute of limitations has not lapsed, they will help file your claim and fight for fair compensation. You want to move with speed for all this to happen and your claim to succeed. You have limited time to file a lawsuit from the date of your loved one’s wrongful death.
What is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations is the law that limits the period an individual has to file legal action. The period length varies depending on the kind of legal action to be taken and the jurisdiction. For instance, statutes of limitations for criminal cases tend to be much longer than that of civil cases. This gives the prosecuting attorney more time to locate criminals and hold them responsible for their offenses.
On the other hand, statutes of limitations for civil cases are shorter than those for criminal cases. This means the complainant has to seek legal advice as quickly as possible after an incident occurs. After the period has elapsed, the complainant cannot file a suit against the liable party anymore. This means the responsible party’s insurance provider won’t have any reason to grant any settlement. The complainant will be left with no compensation whatsoever.
On the same note, a wrongful death statute of limitations is the period within which an individual should file a wrongful death suit against the negligent party. According to the California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1, the time-frame for you to bring this kind of lawsuit is only two years, and the period is counted from the time of the victim’s passing.
Consider, for instance, a case whereby a person dies instantly in an auto crash. Here, the victim’s family members have to bring the wrongful death lawsuit within two years from the day the collision took place. Contrast this, however, with a situation whereby the accident leads to the victim slipping into a coma for six months before passing away. In this case, the statute of limitations for wrongful death begins running from the time of the victim’s passing, and not the day of the crash.
Like any other personal injury case, if you file the lawsuit after the stipulated period has expired, then the court is likely to dismiss your suit. Put otherwise, the court won’t grant you a hearing on the merits of your claim. Instead, you’ll automatically lose the case on a procedural technicality and lose the right to bring the suit in the future altogether. However, there are particular exceptions to the two-year limit rule, as we shall see later in the article. For instance, if your loved one’s demise was due to medical malpractice, the time-frame to bring a lawsuit will be three years, counted from the day of death.
Defining a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
The wrongful death statute permits family members to seek damages when their loved one dies due to another person’s negligent or reckless action. They have to do this by filing a wrongful death lawsuit. The statute is described under the Code of Civil Procedure 377.60. In California State, only specific survivors of the deceased may bring a wrongful death suit. Unlike most states, the California statute permits the survivors to directly bring the lawsuit in court instead of going through the state’s representative. The personal representative could also file the lawsuit independently. If the wrongful death suit becomes successful, the liable party will be ordered to pay financial compensation to the decedent’s family members.
A wrongful death suit could arise from almost any kind of accident, including:
- Car crashes (including being struck by a driver driving while intoxicated with alcohol or drugs)
- Negligent security
- Workplace accidents
- Pedestrian knock-down
- Slip & fall accidents
Other cases that could warrant a wrongful death suit are drowning, assault & battery, elder neglect or abuse, manslaughter or murder, medical malpractice, etc. A wrongful death lawsuit is like a personal injury claim that family members file on the decedent’s behalf. In other terms, the deceased would’ve had a legal basis to file a personal injury suit, had they lived.
Wrongful death suits differ from criminal cases for murder. Criminal cases are brought to court by the state, and their liability is penalized with fines, prison or jail time, probation, etc. One may file a civil wrongful death case in court, even when a criminal proceeding is ongoing.
If you wish to bring a wrongful death suit, you should speak with a skilled wrongful death lawyer or experienced personal injury lawyer to learn much more regarding these claims.
To Whom Does the Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations Apply?
As we mentioned earlier, not everyone is permitted to bring a wrongful death lawsuit and, therefore, subject to the wrongful death statute of limitations. Each state has its rules on bringing wrongful death claims, who is supposed to do so, and the type of damages a complainant can recover. In California, for instance, the law provides that only the following parties can bring a wrongful death lawsuit:
- The decedent’s surviving spouse
- The deceased’s surviving domestic partner
- The victim’s children
- The dead victim’s grandchildren (in case his or her children are also dead)
- Other parties like stepchildren, putative spouse, and children of the putative spouse, who depended on the deceased victim for at least 50 percent of their monetary support
- Any other person entitled to the victim’s estate as per California intestate succession law, like parents, siblings, etc.
Note that you can still file a wrongful death suit to seek damages even if the deceased did not hold any job since they may have contributed to the family’s well-being in other ways. A good case scenario is a claim filed for the wrongful death of a stay-at-home wife or husband that contributed guidance, nurturing, companionship, moral support, and other services for the family. These kinds of contributions are classified as pecuniary losses in wrongful death actions.
Monetary compensation that you can obtain in a successful wrongful death case includes:
- Funeral costs
- Burial expenses
- Amount the victim would’ve earned as wages
- Medical expenses for the period the decedent was in hospital before their demise
- Loss of the victim’s guidance, love, affection, and companionship
- Loss of consortium
- The pain & suffering the decedent suffered before their demise
- Loss of the victim’s support, both financial and non-financial
However, for you to obtain the damages, you have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that:
- A person passed away
- The demise was caused by the liable party’s negligent act or their intention to inflict harm (not necessarily death)
- You suffered financial losses due to the victim’s death
Note that a wrongful death case or any other civil lawsuit only requires a preponderance of the evidence when determining liability. This is unlike in criminal cases where the prosecution needs to prove the guilty party’s actions beyond a reasonable doubt for them to be convicted.
Also, keep in mind that cases to do with a wrongful death can be overly complex. Thus, you want to seek legal advice if you are contemplating proceeding with a case like this. Additionally, a wrongful death case differs from a survival action. A survival action is filed on the victim’s estate behalf to seek damages for the losses sustained by the deceased (as opposed to family members) from another person’s wrongful or negligent actions. Whereas punitive damages aren’t available in wrongful death lawsuits, they might be awarded in survival action cases. The time-frame to bring survival claims is also two years, which starts running from the time of death.
Why the Need for a Time-frame to File Wrongful Death Cases?
The statute of limitations rule may seem somewhat harsh. Shouldn’t people who have lost their loved ones due to crashes caused by negligent parties have as much time to proceed against them as possible? Shouldn’t they be capable of holding the negligent parties responsible for the death they caused any time they are ready to do so? Even though it may be strict, there are several reasons to have statutes of limitations. Firstly, the California law encourages everybody to file their lawsuits in court as soon as possible. Avoidable postponements are discouraged, and this helps courts to operate more effectively and prevent the relevant dockets from being congested with older cases.
A statute of limitations also helps in keeping the complainant’s case as solid as possible. The critical proof is likely to weaken as time passes. Witnesses might forget crucial details and be less sure of any facts they remember. Evidence could easily be lost or destroyed. Take the example of a product liability suit based on poor medications. As time goes by, the packaging might easily be lost. In other cases, the medicine itself may age, making it more challenging to substantiate that it was contaminated. Consider also in the case of an auto crash. If the automobile is damaged, the liable party’s insurance provider may hurriedly have it be taken to a scrapyard. Crucial proof might be damaged or lost. This may prevent the complainant from establishing that the negligent driver was to blame for the victim’s death.
Fairness also demands that the liable party have the chance to challenge the claims against them. Delayed filing of cases means the accused will also lose access to crucial evidence. Therefore, whereas it might seem harsh, a statute of limitations protects both the defendant and the complainant. It also assists the courts in the running more effectively. All these are critical things that keep the justice system operating smoothly & fairly.
Exceptions to the Time-frame on Wrongful Death Lawsuits
Whereas the general two-year time-frame applies to most situations, there are various exceptions to it. Based on the claim's circumstances, the exceptions may allow you to have some more time to bring your suit. Yet, at the same time, the exceptions might also lessen the time within which you must file a lawsuit. They include:
Medical Malpractice Cases
In a wrongful death case where the reason for death is the health care provider’s medical malpractice, the deceased’s family members usually have up to three years to bring a claim, and the period starts running from the time of the death. Or, they will have a year from the time the medical negligent act was discovered or should’ve reasonably been discovered. Medical malpractice happens when a hospital, doctor, nurse, or any other health care provider causes a patient’s death or injury through negligent conduct or for failing to act. Examples of medical malpractice omissions or acts that could lead to the filing of a wrongful death action include:
- Death caused by anesthesia
- Surgical errors
- Birth injuries resulting in the demise of the child/mother after or during birth (In the state of California, this is different from the wrongful death case of a fetus)
- Misdiagnosing severe medical conditions, which eventually result in death
- Negligence in the emergency room leading to death
- Bacterial infections
- Errors in administering or prescribing medication
- Failure to diagnose severe ailments
The Discovery Rule
The court may prolong the statute of limitations for wrongful death in situations where the victim’s family members couldn’t have reasonably discovered the demise. This exception is usually called the discovery rule. Essentially, the discovery rule enables the time-frame to be paused (tolled) in situations whereby family members couldn’t have reasonably been aware that the victim was killed.
If the discovery rule applies to your case, the time-frame may start to run not at the time of the demise, but rather when the passing away should’ve been or was discovered.
Cases Involving a Government or Public Entity
If the victim’s wrongful death was the fault of a government body or their employee, the applicable time-frame to bring a claim is only six months from the time of demise. Examples of cases where a government or public entity is partly to blame for one’s wrongful death include:
- A car crash with a government-owned automobile
- Collisions at public schools
- Malpractice cases at a government-run medical center
A Minor Suing for their Parent’s Wrongful Death
There’s a distinct statute of limitations law when only a child is bringing a wrongful death lawsuit for the demise of their parent. In this situation, the minor has to file the suit within two years, but the clock starts ticking from the day they turn eighteen years old.
Consider, for instance, a situation where a parent unexpectedly passes away after involvement in a collision resulting from a faulty machine, and he/she is survived only by a twelve-year son. Here the son doesn’t have to bring a wrongful death suit before he turns eighteen years. But once he turns eighteen, he has until he reaches twenty years to file the lawsuit.
Negligent Party Out of the State
The law also provides an exception where the negligent party leaves the state after the accident/ demise, but before a suit can be brought. In this situation, the wrongful death statute of limitations doesn’t run for as long as the negligent party isn’t in the state. Once they return, the clock begins running once again. However, this exception does not apply to a nonresident driver. It also doesn’t apply if the auto involved in the collision was registered out of the state unless the complainant makes reasonable effort to find the accused and cannot do so.
Tolling the Statute of Limitations
All isn’t lost if the time-frame to file your wrongful death lawsuit is about to or has expired. In this situation, you have about three options you can pursue to prolong your time limit. They include:
- Having the court waive the statute of limitations
- Having the opposing party waive the statute of limitations
- Tolling the statute of limitations
You may try requesting the judge to waive the statute of limitations so your suit can be brought. However, the situation has to meet specific criteria that justify the waiver for the judge to grant it, which is very rare. It is also likely that the waiver request you send to the defendant won’t have a positive reply.
On the contrary, tolling (suspending or delaying) of the statute of limitations is more common. However, whether or not tolling is acceptable depends on the specific laws of a state. The discovery rule may be considered tolling since it postpones the running of the statute of limitations. Likewise, other different cases justify tolling.
For instance, as we mentioned earlier, a minor can’t use up his/her statute of limitations period while they’re still young. Therefore, in wrongful death suits by children for their parents’ demise, the minor can bring the lawsuit several years later since the statute of limitations wouldn’t start to run until the child turned eighteen years old. Generally, the judge weighs the advantages of tolling. That is, a complainant being capable of filing their cases against the bias towards the liable party.
Statute of Limitations for Other Causes of Wrongful Death Action
Apart from the common reasons that can lead to wrongful death suits like vehicle accidents and medical malpractice, several other issues could also result in these kinds of claims. They include:
- Toxic substances: Wrongful death could be due to the victim’s exposure to harmful chemicals like asbestos and other chemicals from a nuclear plant or other industries. If you believe your family member passed away due to exposure to dangerous chemicals, you have to reach out to a competent wrongful death lawyer as quickly as possible. The lawyer will help you evaluate the situation and know if you can take legal action.
- Unsafe products: If pharmaceutical companies, for example, rush to supply dangerous drugs to the market with no thorough testing, the demise of many persons may be the result. Further instances of unsafe products are tainted foodstuffs that were improperly prepared, poorly designed, or inadequately inspected and faulty machines.
- A work-related death: If the demise of your family member resulted from a third party’s negligent acts in the line of duty, for example, a careless delivery motorist, it could be classified as wrongful death.
- Suicide: Suicide can be categorized as wrongful death if it occurred because of someone else’s negligent acts. For example, if a counselor or therapist saw the warning indications of a possible suicide but opted to overlook it, they could be held accountable for the demise. Additionally, emotional distress, and therefore, suicide, may also stem from certain behaviors like ridicule.
In all the cases mentioned above, the time-frame to bring a wrongful death action is two years from the day the plaintiff realizes or should have realized the cause of demise except when a public or government entity is involved.
Contact an Experienced Wrongful Attorney Near Me
California laws on wrongful death statute of limitations are confusing. That’s why you must speak to an experienced wrongful death lawyer as soon as you’re aware of possible legal action. At The LA Personal Injury Law Firm, we help defend your legal rights to recover damages. We also help you avoid issues related to the statute of limitations and applicable to your specific claim. Contact us at 310-935-0089 today to schedule a consultation meeting with our skilled, aggressive wrongful injury lawyers. We serve clients throughout Los Angeles and the surrounding cities.
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