What is the purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit?
While never an easy task, the main purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit is to hold the responsible parties financially accountable for their actions. In most cases, the responsible party is forced to compensate the victim’s family for their loss. However, another important purpose in every wrongful death case that we handle is to force the responsible party to alter their behavior so that no other family has to suffer in the same way.
Who can bring a wrongful death action in California?
In California, Code of Civil Procedure 337.60 limits certain people who can file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the decedent. The statute specifically allows the following parties to bring a wrongful death claim:
- the deceased person's surviving spouse
- the deceased person's domestic partner
- the deceased person' s surviving children
- if there is no surviving person in the deceased person's line of descent, then a wrongful death lawsuit may be brought by anyone "who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession"; that can include the deceased person's parents, or the deceased person's siblings, depending on who is living at the time of the deceased person's death.
Additionally, individuals who were financially dependent on the deceased person, can also bring a wrongful death lawsuit in California:
- the deceased person's "putative spouse", that is, someone who lived with the deceased and considered a "spouse" even though there is no legal contact
- the children of the putative spouse
- the deceased person's stepchildren, and
- the deceased person's parents.
What are the damages in a wrongful death claim?
Damages will generally fall into two main categories called economic and non-economic. In the first are damages to the "estate" for the surviving family members for actual economic losses associated with the death. Losses that are typically assigned to the "estate" include:
- funeral and burial expenses
- medical and hospital bills for the final illness or injury
- lost income, including potential income the deceased person would reasonably have been expected to earn in the future had he or she lived
Then there are damages specifically assigned for the individual family members and the "non-economic" loss that they have suffered. Losses that are typically assigned to the surviving family members include:
- the value of household services that would have been provided.
- loss of anticipated financial support
- loss of love, companionship, care, protection, society, assistance, affection, moral support.
No fixed standard exists for deciding the amount of non-economic damages, except jurors must use their judgment to decide a reasonable amount based on the evidence and your common sense.