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How to Compensate for Your Wrongful Death Woes: File a Claim or a Lawsuit

A wrongful death can occur at the most unexpected time, resulting in life-altering changes for the entire family of the deceased. If you have experienced the sudden loss of a loved one, please accept our condolences.

No one expects to be in these unfortunate circumstances. You likely have many questions, concerns, and stresses at this time. Our kind and compassionate team of Los Angeles wrongful death attorneys at West Coast Trial Lawyers are here to answer all of your questions.

When a wrongful death occurs, the victim’s heirs have the right to recover compensation for both economic and non-economic damages.

Compensatory damages for a wrongful death claim may include:

  • Lost wages
  • Medical bills
  • Property loss
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of consortium
  • Funeral and burial costs

1. What is a Wrongful Death Claim?

According to California's wrongful death law — which is primarily covered in California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 — a wrongful death is characterized by, “a cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another…”

California wrongful death law (California Code Of Civil Procedure 377.60) further stipulates which family members are entitled to recover damages if a loved one was killed because of someone's wrongful act.

1.1 Who is Entitled to Sue for Wrongful Death?

As outlined under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, below is a list of family members who are entitled to bring a wrongful death claim in court:

  • the decedent’s spouse
  • the decedent’s children
  • the decedent’s registered domestic partner
  • the decedent’s grandchildren, if the decedent’s children are deceased
  • any minors who were at least 50% dependent on the deceased for financial support
  • any individual entitled to the decedent's property according to California's intestate succession laws

1.2 Proving a Wrongful Death Claim

A successful wrongful death case will involve proving:

  • the death of an individual
  • that the negligence or reckless actions of the defendant caused the death
  • that the surviving family members have suffered financially and emotionally

The plaintiff must provide convincing evidence to the jury that there was a connection between the negligent act and the cause of death. If they are successful in doing so, then the allegations against the defendant would be considered more likely to be true than not true, which will result in the plaintiff recovering damages.

However, if the plaintiff fails to show convincing evidence, then the defendant will win. When it comes to civil and criminal cases, the burden of proof varies. In civil cases, the standard is set lower for plaintiffs compared to prosecutors in criminal cases. Prosecutors are expected to show a substantial amount of proof against the defendant.

Defendants do not have to prove anything to prevent the jury from rewarding the plaintiff for damages. If a plaintiff is unable to convince the jury that the allegations they are claiming are true, then the defendant will be successful in the case even without having to present their evidence. However, they may use affirmative defense. This will create a reverse effect between the plaintiff and defendant, thus resulting in the defendant having to prove that the defense should be applied.

Surviving family members are typically entitled to bring a wrongful death claim in court for acts based on negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and especially for a deliberate wrongful act.

Examples of wrongful acts/deaths may include:

  • Drowning
  • Slip and falls
  • Nursing homes
  • Police negligence
  • Medical malpractice
  • Assault and battery
  • Murder/manslaughter
  • Elder abuse and/or neglect
  • Child abuse and/or neglect
  • Pedestrian "knock down” accidents
  • Car accidents, including DUI incidents

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that surviving family members may also be able to sue under strict liability if a loved one died because of a defective product. Also, it’s important to recognize that certain activities carry an Assumption of risk and may bar surviving family members from bringing a wrongful death claim.

2. Available Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim

Damages in a wrongful death claim are meant to compensate surviving family members for the loss of tangible and intangible forms of support they reasonably should have expected to receive had the victim not lost his or her life.

According to the Center for Disease and Control (CDC), in 2018 life expectancy for the U.S. population was 78.7 years. However, at any moment, a life can be cut short due to a wrongful death incident. The loss of the life of a loved one is invaluable emotional loss ang hurt, but also carries the loss of potential or forthcoming financial value of that individual.

How does the court determine how much surviving family members must be compensated for? The period of time during which these damages are recoverable is typically the shorter of:

  • the decedent’s life expectancy when the wrongful act took place
  • The life expectancy of the plaintiff when the wrongful act took place

When it comes to determining life expectancy, factors such as lifestyle, overall health, and job occupation will all be taken into consideration by the court.

2.1 Economic Damages vs Non-Economic Damages

Economic damages may include:

  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Financial support that the decedent would have reasonably contributed to their family throughout their lifetimes
  • Loss of benefits or gifts the surviving family members would have reasonably expected to receive had the deceased not lost their life

Non-economic damages may include:

  • Affection
  • Protection
  • Moral Support
  • Companionship
  • Sexual Relations
  • Training and Guidance

Non-economic damages will be awarded at the court’s discretion and are based on common sense and available evidence. There is no set amount or tried and tested standard for determining a dollar amount.

2.1 What About Punitive Damages?

A surviving family member cannot recover punitive damages in a wrongful death claim. There is only one exception, which is if the deceased was killed because of a felony homicide for which the defendant was already convicted.

A surviving family member would have to file a "survival" cause of action on behalf of the decedent’s estate in order to recover punitive damages. 

It is also worth mentioning that heirs who are filing a claim for wrongful death will generally not be allowed to recover punitive damages. The only exception to this law is when the decedent lost their life due to felony homicide that the defendant was convicted for.

Let’s consider an example of punitive damages and wrongful death claims:

Imagine that Maria was a patient of Dr. Ramos. Dr. Ramos has been treating Maria for an immune disorder for several months with a combination of medication and regular check-ups.

Maria has been showing steady improvement and will only need a few more weeks of treatment to fully recover. However, Dr. Ramos begins to display romantic interest in Maria, who promptly rebuffs him. Dr. Ramos is not happy about this and makes an unfortunate decision.

Dr. Ramos deliberately administers the wrong medication which causes Maria to become gradually ill until she eventually passes away. Dr. Ramos denies all responsibility, but an autopsy report reveals not only negligence but deliberate malice.

In this example, Dr. Ramos would certainly be subject to punitive damages for his deliberately harmful acts, and Maria’s family would be entitled to this compensation.

2.2 What is a Survival Cause of Action?

A "survival" action is not intended to compensate the decedent's surviving family members for their losses. Instead, a survival action allows the estate a right to sue for losses sustained by the deceased because of the wrongful act that occurred before he or she died.

California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30 sets forth the requirements for a survival action. Typical damages recoverable in a survival action may include:

  • Lost wages
  • Medical bills
  • Property loss
  • Loss of consortium
  • Emotional distress
  • Funeral and burial costs

3. Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations in California for both a wrongful death claim and a survival action is two years. The clock begins ticking in a wrongful death case on the date of death. When it comes to survival actions, the decedent’s estate has exactly two years to file from the later of:

  • The date of the injury, or 
  • Six months after the death.

However, there are exceptions to the statute of limitations. This is classified as a “discovery rule.” If the cause of a deceased victim’s death was not obvious when they died and was later found out, this could extend the time period for the victim’s family to file a wrongful death lawsuit from the day the negligent act was discovered.

Also, in any case where the government or one of its employees was at fault for a wrongful death, you are given 6 months to sue them. The case will be dismissed if the family exceeds the given time period.

4. Read More Wrongful Death Resources

  • Wrongful Death Lawsuits Against a Hospital

    There are a variety of ways a hospital could be held liable for a patient’s death. If reckless acts were committed by an employed doctor that resulted in the death of a patient, then the hospital may be held liable for the patient’s wrongful death.

  • Survival Action vs Wrongful Death │ Wrongful Death Attorney

    Survival action and wrongful death have similar statute of limitations. There is a two year time period for a wrongful death lawsuit to be initiated starting from the date of the wrongful act first being committed.

  • How to Prove Loss of Consortium

    In order to file a loss of consortium claim your spouse or registered domestic partner must have been hurt or killed because of someone else’s negligent acts.

  • Wrongful Death Cases Involving Children

    A wrongful death claim involves the challenging task of quantifying how much value a person’s life means to surviving family members. This is a difficult task for any human being, but more so for a child.

  • Wrongful Death Statistics in California

    Wrongful death cases are particularly difficult to prove because all deaths feel wrong. Legally, however, “wrongful death” is only wrong if it is caused by the negligence or intentional actions of another. In the state of California, a loved one may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit to recover compensation.

  • Statute of Limitations for a Wrongful Death

    California has a statute of limitation (which refers to the period of time a party can file a claim or a lawsuit) that applies for all lawsuits against a public entity, including wrongful death cases.

  • What Constitutes as a Medical Melpractice?

    Medical malpractice refers to the actions of medical professionals that can result in injury or death. The loved ones of the individual who lost their life can file an insurance claim or lawsuit against medical practitioners or institutions for wrongful death in these cases.

  • Wrongful Death Elements

    There are several different elements that are considered in a wrongful death case that can affect the compensation from an insurance claim or from a settlement. Some of these different elements include negligence, damages, breach of duty, and causation.  

  • How to Prove Wrongful Death

    Wrongful death can be a difficult topic to handle, especially so soon after losing a loved one. However, it’s better to collect the necessary evidence to build your case sooner rather than later.

  • Can I Sue for the Wrongful Death of an Animal?

    You can take legal action and receive compensation if someone caused the death of your animal. However, there are several important steps you need to take in order to build your case.

  • Who Can Sue for Wrongful Death? │ Insight From a Wrongful Death Attorney

    Typically, only the ones closest in relation to a lost loved one can sue for wrongful death. This includes a spouse or children of the deceased.  

  • Califronia Wrongful Death One Action Rule │ Insight From a Wrongful Death Attorney

    California as a rule that prevents the defendant of a wrongful death case from getting sued by multiple parties. This means that the defendant in a wrongful death case can only be sued once and all parties legally able to file a lawsuit must do so under one lawsuit.

  • Wrongful Death in Nursing Homes 

    Elderly people are placed in nursing homes to be taken care of, not to die wrongfully. Unfortunately, this is the case for many elderly people who experience mistreatment in nursing homes and die as a result from this.  

  • Wrongful Death by Police │ Expert Wrongful Death Attorney Advice

    Police are supposed to protect the communities, not commit wrongful death against community members. However, it is far too common that police commit unjust acts of violence against community members, resulting in their wrongful death.  

  • Wrongful Death vs Assumption of Risk │ West Coast Trial Lawyers

    Wrongful death is committed when there is a malice behind the action that caused the death. Assumption of risk refers to when somebody engages in an action though they know there is a risk involving their safety involved.  

  • How to Successfully Pursue a Wrongful Death Claim

    Pursuing a wrongful death case in California can be quite a feat that you can’t go in on your own. You need the right evidence and the right legal team to support your case.

  • Wrongful Death, No Will - Who Gets What?

    Wrongful death can result from a preventable accident that occurred without much anticipation. It’s likely that a person who died from wrongful death did not have a will. However, there are intestate laws that help determine who gets what after a wrongful death case with no will.

  • 10 Causes of Nursing Home Wrongful Deaths

    We send our loved ones to nursing homes so that they can get the care and attention that they need, not to be abused, neglected, and die a wrongful death. Nursing homes can be held responsible for causing the death of your loved one if they partook in any negligent or malice actions towards the resident.

  • How Is Value Determined in a Wrongful Death Case?

    No amount of money can replace the value of the life of a loved one. However, losing an integral member of a family can have dire financial consequences. In a wrongful death lawsuit, compensation is calculated based on the economic and non-economic value of the deceased.

  • Wrongful Death Settlements

    In a wrongful death case, the loved ones of the deceased are entitled to compensation for both their economic and non-economic losses. If there was property damage that occurred prior to the death of the deceased in the accident, the family of the deceased may also be eligible for punitive damages as well.

  • Medical Malpractice vs. Wrongful Death

    Victims of medical malpractice may die a wrongful death and there could be a number of individuals at fault, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospital staff, midwives, and more.

  • California Wrongful Death Laws

    California Wrongful Death Laws shape the parameters under which a wrongful death case is considered and analyzed. These statutes state the different facts that must be proven to win a wrongful death case and the time frame it must be filed in order for the claim to be valid.

  • Available Damages in a Wrongful Death Case

    While the loss of life is invaluable, in the case of a wrongful death, loved ones are eligible for compensation due to the economic and non-economic losses that come with the death of a loved one.

  • Car Accidents Resulting in Wrongful Death

    Accidents are a leading cause of death in the United States, and car accidents rank high as the main types of accidents that cause death. If a loved one is lost in a car accident, the family may be eligible for compensation for their losses.

West Coast Trial Lawyers is Here to Help

A wrongful death attorney at our firm can help you recover financial compensation for the losses you have suffered on behalf of your loved one, including medical bills, property damage, lost wages, and more.

Call us today at (213) 927-3700 or email [email protected] to schedule a free consultation with our experienced, caring and compassionate legal team.


CACI No. 3921. Wrongful Death (Death of an Adult). Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) (2017 edition). Justia.

CACI NO. 1200 Strict Liability - Essential Factual Elements. Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) (2017 edition). Justia.

Civil Code - CIV. Division 4. General Provisions [3274 - 9566]. Part 1. Relief [3274 - 3428]. Title 2. Compensatory Relief [3281 - 3360]. Chapter 1. Damages in General [3281 - 3296]. Article 3. Exemplary DAmages [3294 - 3296]. California Legislative Information.

Code of Civil Procedure - CCP 377.60. Part 2 of Civil Actions [307 - 1062.20]. Title 3. Of the Parties to Civil Actions [367 -389.5]. Chapter 4. Effect of Death [377.10 - 377.62]. Article 6. Wrongful Death [377.60- 377.62]. California Legislative Information.

Code of Civil Procedure - CCP. Part 2. Of Civil Actions [307 - 1062.20]. Title 3. Of the Parties to Civil Actions [367 - 389.5]. Chapter 4. Effect of Death [377.10 - 377.62]. Article 3. Decedent's Cause of Action [377.30 - 377.35]. California Legislative Information.

Code of Civil Procedure - CCP 377.30. Part 2. Of Civil Actions [307 - 1062.20]. Title 3. Of the Parties to Civil Actions [367 - 389.5]. Chapter 4. Effect of Death [377.10 - 377.62]. Article 3. Decedent's Cause of Action [377.30 - 377.35]. California Legislative Information.

Probate Code - PROB. Division 6. Wills and Intestate Succession [6100 - 6806]. Part 2. Intestate Succession. Chapter 1 Intestate Succession Generally [6400 - 6414]. California Legislative Information.


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