A loved one’s untimely passing can profoundly affect your family, causing emotional and financial damage. If their death was due to the negligent actions of another, you have the right to seek damages for the loss, including funeral costs and loss of companionship.
California allows families to recover damages for the death of a loved one caused by someone else’s negligent behavior in a wrongful death claim. This type of claim lets you seek financial compensation from the party responsible for your loved one’s death.
A California wrongful death lawsuit involves careful consideration of multiple factors to calculate the compensation you and your family are entitled to. An experienced wrongful death attorney can help you determine the damages you can receive in your claim so you can support your family after a loved one’s passing.
Who Can Sue for a Wrongful Death in California?
Per Section 377.60 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, if a person’s death is caused by someone else’s wrongful action or negligence, the representative of the deceased or the following individuals can file a claim:
- The surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, or grandchildren if the children are deceased
- When there are no children and grandchildren, the surviving spouse or domestic partner can receive compensation
- Legal guardians if there are no parents
- The loved one’s putative spouse, a term which refers to a person who may not have been legally married to the deceased but who believed the marriage was valid in good faith
- A minor who lived in the deceased’s household for the last 180 days and received at least half of their support from the deceased
Recoverable Damages in a Wrongful Death Action
When you file a wrongful death claim, you can typically recover economic and non-economic damages. These include the calculable and intangible aspects of the loss. Heirs cannot receive punitive damages in a wrongful death case in California.
Economic damages aim to compensate you and your family for financial losses from your loved one’s passing. The following monetary damages are available in a wrongful death claim:
- Financial support that the deceased would have provided during their lifespan or the claimant’s life, whichever is shorter
- Estimated value of gifts or benefits that the claimant would have likely received from the deceased
- Costs incurred for funeral and burial services
- Equivalent monetary value of household chores that the deceased would have performed
If you are awarded future economic damages, the court can reduce them to the present cash value.
Non-economic damages compensate your family for the intangible, emotional harm of losing a loved one due to another’s wrongful actions. You can claim the following non-economic damages:
- Loss of your loved one’s affection, company, care, help, protection, and emotional support
- Loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations for surviving spouses or domestic partners
- Loss of the decedent’s training and guidance
- Your loved one’s suffering, disfigurement, or pain before dying
The court determines non-economic damages based on the proof presented during the wrongful death claim. They must use common sense to decide on a reasonable settlement based on the evidence shown.
What Factors Are Excluded When Calculating Wrongful Death Damages?
During the wrongful death claim evaluation process, the court won’t consider these factors:
- Your emotional distress, sadness, or psychological pain
- Your financial status, whether rich or poor
- Your loved one’s pain and suffering
Instead, they consider your loved one’s life expectancy when determining wrongful death damages, including their age, health, habits, activities, lifestyle, and job description. They might look at published sources of information to determine the average life expectancy of your loved one’s gender and age.
How is the Value of a Wrongful Death Claim Calculated?
The value of a wrongful death claim varies as each case has unique circumstances. Settlements can range from a few thousand dollars to more than a million dollars—for example, a deadly head-on collision due to negligence resulted in a $5 million settlement.
If you work with a wrongful death lawyer, they review several factors to calculate the actual value of your wrongful death claim:
- The other party’s insurance policy limits: If your damages exceed the defendant’s insurance policy limits, they may have to pay the extra damage award out-of-pocket. This can limit the amount you receive if the person responsible does not have personal assets.
- Your family’s losses: Your compensation award will be based on your family’s losses. For example, your attorney may consider the age of the deceased’s children when determining compensation for loss of guidance or financial support.
- Your loved one’s case and manner of wrongful death: Various situations lead to wrongful death claims, including intentional harmful acts such as medical negligence or driving under the influence.
California has no cap on economic or non-economic damages for most wrongful death cases. However, it does limit non-economic damages for medical malpractice claims. You can only receive up to $500,000 for non-economic damages.
How to Prove Your Damages in Your Wrongful Death Claim
Proving your damages in a wrongful death claim requires establishing three key elements:
- Negligence: The other party’s actions, whether partially or entirely, caused the death of your loved one due to negligence, recklessness, or carelessness.
- Breach of duty: The other party had a legal obligation to exercise reasonable care towards the deceased. This duty may vary depending on the circumstances, such as a driver following traffic laws and behaving responsibly on the road.
- Causation: You must provide evidence that the defendant’s breach of duty and negligence directly resulted in your loved one’s death, fatal injury, or death.
As the plaintiff, you must meet the burden of proof based on the preponderance of evidence. This means you must present evidence with a greater than 50% chance of being true, showing the other party acted with negligence, recklessness, or intent to harm.
A wrongful death attorney can help you gather evidence for your claim. They can request medical records of the deceased, including hospital records, autopsy reports, and relevant treatment documentation. They can also retain expert witnesses, such as medical and accident reconstruction specialists, to analyze the evidence and explain the cause of death to win your family compensation.
Understand the Calculation of Damages in a California Wrongful Death Claim
Losing a loved one can have devastating emotional and financial effects on your family. If your loved one’s death was due to another’s negligence, you can file a wrongful death claim under California law to pursue economic and non-economic damages.
With well-supported evidence, you can prove negligence, breach of duty, and causation in your claim to establish the basis of your claim and receive compensation for you and your family.