How a Wrongful Death Case Works in California


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A wrongful death case in California involves a death which was the result of the negligent, or intentional, actions of another individual or corporation.  In California, spouses, children, parents, domestic partners of a person who has died a wrongful death may file a claim for compensation for the loss. 

Who Can be Held Negligent and Liable?

An example of a negligent act would be someone who is driving while intoxicated, or someone who is driving recklessly and causes a death in doing so.  Another example is a death that results when a patient does not receive ordinary medical care. This is known as medical negligence or medical malpractice.

A company may also be liable for a wrongful death if they knowingly created a hazardous product which when used resulted in a death. There have been many wrongful death lawsuits over the years against tobacco companies claiming the companies knowingly distributed a dangerous and addictive product.  Intentional acts of violence can result in a wrongful death, i.e. a stabbing or a shooting.

Criminal vs. Civil Case

A person who causes a death will likely face criminal charges.  Criminal charges are brought by the State of California and do not compensate loved ones for their loss. A criminal case will determine guilt or innocence based on a standard of proof which is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which can be a difficult standard to meet.

A wrongful death case, on the other hand, is a civil case and is brought by the loved ones who have suffered the loss of a parent, child, spouse, or domestic partner.  The party bringing the claim for wrongful death must prove to the jury that the cause of death was more likely than not the result of the negligent or intentional acts of the person or company being sued.

Bringing a Lawsuit

The first step in bringing a wrongful death case involves an investigation into the events surrounding the death. Police reports, medical reports and witness reports will provide evidence of any possible intentional acts or negligence which led to the death.  Once loved ones have some indication that a wrongful death has occurred, a wrongful death claim is filed in civil court.

Trial and Damages

A jury will be chosen to hear the case and evidence will be presented to show the cause of the death was likely the result of negligent or intentional acts.  Evidence will also be presented in order to determine a fair amount of compensation for the loss of a loved one. It is virtually impossible to put a dollar amount on a person’s life, but that is exactly what the jury is asked to do in a wrongful death lawsuit. In California, loved ones can make a claim for:

  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Medical costs occurring after the incident but before death
  • Pain and suffering of the survivors
  • Anticipated earnings for the decedent
  • Loss of companionship and care for the survivors
  • Lost medical, insurance or retirement benefits

An experienced wrongful death attorney can pull together the evidence needed to prove that a wrongful death has occurred as well as evidence to support a determination of compensation that is fair.

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