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:
- Moral Support
- 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