A wrongful death claim arises when a person’s life is taken as a result of a negligent or willful act of another person or persons. It is an area governed in the State of California by statute, and as it can be complex, it requires the help of those with experience in the area to properly bring a claim.
This type of claim is different from many other lawsuits in that it is not brought by the person who experienced the injury, but rather by the survivors of the deceased. Who are these survivors who are entitled by law to bring such a suit? When should they bring the suit?
Why Does the Wrongful Death Suit Exist?
Before answering who is entitled to bring a wrongful death claim, it may be best to ask why such a claim exists in the first place. A wrongful death claim is meant to compensate those survivors who had a familial connection with the deceased and are suffering due to the loss of life.
While everyone who knew the deceased suffers when they pass, certain people suffer more and are entitled by law to bring a claim for economic compensation for that loss. Wrongful death claims are brought against a defendant who has caused someone’s death either negligently or through intentional harm.
For example, a spouse should have enjoyed the companionship and economic earnings of his or her partner for years to come, but are now deprived of those benefits of marriage. These benefits include the value of household services and the loss of love, attention, affection, and support. Children who wrongfully lose parents do not have the emotional and financial support that they otherwise would have, and vice versa. The wrongful death claim gives economic compensation for those who have suffered emotionally and financially from the wrongful death of the deceased.
When Would a Wrongful Death Suit Be Initiated?
The most common type of situation in which a wrongful death suit is initiated is after a murder trial. A person may be found innocent of committing a murder but still be held liable for a wrongful death. The burden for proving that a person has committed a murder is much higher than it is for proving that a person is responsible for a liable death.
Perhaps the most famous example, not just in California but the world, is that of O.J. Simpson. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder in 1994 but was found liable for the wrongful death of two people in the following civil trial.
Other types of common situations in which a wrongful death suit would be appropriate include:
- Medical malpractice that results in the patient’s death
- Automobile or airplane accidents
- Death during a supervised activity such as children’s extracurricular programs or construction
- Occupational exposure to hazardous conditions and toxic substances
This is not meant to serve as an exhaustive list, and theories of wrongful death are constantly evolving. While recent examples in California include more typical cases of a nursing home death due to medical negligence and deaths attributable to massive toxic methane leaks, wrongful death claims have been initiated in much more unique situations, such as the case of parents bringing suit against several government agencies for failing to deport a killer who was in the United States illegally.
Who Can and Can Not Bring a Wrongful Death Suit
By California statute, only certain people such as family members, are allowed to bring a wrongful death claim. People who can bring wrongful death claims in California include:
- The deceased person’s surviving spouse
- The deceased person’s domestic partner
- The deceased person’s putative spouses (Spouses who believed in good faith they were married to the deceased)
- The deceased person’s surviving children (including adopted children)
If none of the people listed above survive the decedent, then a wrongful death lawsuit may be brought in California by anyone “who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.” To put that more simply, the person who would be entitled to bring a wrongful death claim in the event that the spouse and children predeceased the decedent are other family members who would inherit from the deceased’s estate under California law. This includes:
- The deceased person’s surviving parents
- The deceased person’s surviving grandparents
- The deceased person’s surviving siblings
It is worth repeating once again that it is generally only family members who can sustain a wrongful death claim. This means that people in the deceased’s life like close friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, or those who were supported by the deceased, such as foster children, are generally not entitled to bring a wrongful death claim, no matter how close they were to the deceased.
Interestingly enough though, under California law, the deceased person’s stepchildren may bring a wrongful death claim against the entity that caused the step parent’s death, even if the stepchildren were not adopted by the step parent, but only if the step children were financially dependent on the deceased stepparent.
Determine Whether You are a Survivor Entitled to Bring a Wrongful Death Claim
Determining whether or not you are a survivor entitled to bring a wrongful death claim can be complex in some situations, and successfully bringing such a suit can be difficult. It is always advisable to be represented by an experienced attorney. Only an attorney will be able to look over your situation, decide if you have the right to bring a wrongful death suit, and determine what damages you may be entitled to.
Let the lawyers at CityWide Law Group in Los Angeles guide you through your difficult times and help you get financially compensated. While money cannot replace the loss of a loved one, it can help make your life easier.