In common law jurisdictions — and this includes all states of the United States except Louisiana — a wrongful death claim is a type of claim that can be brought against against a person or persons who are liable for the death of an individual. This claim is a type of civil action, although there may also be a related criminal action if the death resulted from a crime. The claim is ordinarily brought by the close relatives of the person who died, who is known as the “decedent.” The specific persons who can bring a wrongful death claim varies from state to state. In most states, wrongful death claims and the list of relatives who are entitled to bring them are specified in statutes. In California, this includes sections 377.60 to 377.62 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which specify that claims may be brought generally by the spouse, domestic partner, and children of the deceased person, as well as certain other relatives and dependents.
Standard of Proof
In this type of civil action, the standard of proof is typically lower than in a criminal case that might result from the same incident. The most famous example of this in recent U.S. history is the O.J. Simpson case in which Mr. Simpson was acquitted of charges in the murder case but was found liable for wrongful death in the subsequent civil case. Most wrongful death claims, however, result from negligence rather than criminal activity, and are associated with the types of incidents commonly associated with non-fatal personal injury claims, such as traffic collisions and medical malpractice.
Wrongful Death Claim Damages
The damages that can be sought in a wrongful death claim also vary from state to state. In California, this typically includes past charges for hospital and other medical services related to the injury that caused the death, funeral expenses, loss of services such as household services to a surviving spouse or child, lost of future earnings and support that would otherwise have accrued to the claimant, and loss of the love, comfort, society, companionship, affection and moral support of the decedent.
As with other types of civil claims, a wrongful death claim resulting from negligence is ordinarily defended and paid by the liability insurance company of the person who caused the death. Proving liability — that someone is responsible for negligently causing the death — and proving damages — the monetary value of the losses — depends upon the same types of evidence as in claims related to non-fatal injuries. This may include police reports and physical evidence from fatal traffic accidents, fire department, ambulance, and medical records that describe the fatal injuries and medical care leading up to the point of death, and wage loss information and expert witness testimony to establish the value of lost future income, household services, etc.
Also in common with other civil claims, a wrongful death claim has specific timelines which must be followed related to the filing of claims and lawsuits. Failure to follow these timelines can result in loss of the claim.
If a close relative or a non-relative upon whom you are dependent has passed away, you may have a wrongful death claim. Call me now at (916) 921-6400. If you are outside the Sacramento area, you can call at (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice.