Death is a part of life, but that knowledge makes grieving no less painful when a loved one is lost. Death is easiest to accept when it comes from natural causes at the end of a long life. Surviving family members are comforted by the knowledge that a parent or spouse lived a full life. We are deprived of that comfort when death is the sudden and unexpected result of another person’s carelessness.
The law uses the phrase “wrongful death” to refer to a death that is caused by another person without justification. Although wrongful deaths can be caused intentionally (as in the case of murder) or recklessly (as when a gun is fired into a crowd), most wrongful deaths are the result of negligence.
Every person in society owes a legal duty to every other person to exercise reasonable care so that we avoid causing accidental injury or death. A careless act (or the careless failure to act when you have a legal obligation to act) that causes harm is addressed by negligence law. When negligent acts or omissions cause an accidental death, the law regards the death wrongful. To the victim’s family, however, the death is more than wrongful. It is tragic.
Motorcycle and car accidents are among the most common causes of wrongful death. Other negligent acts that might result in a wrongful death include medical malpractice, manufacturing an unsafe or defective product, and failing to keep business or residential premises in a safe condition. Any act of negligence that causes a wrongful death victimizes not only the person whose life ended prematurely, but also the deceased’s spouse, children, parents, siblings, and other relatives and friends who grieve a loved one’s loss.
Any death that is attributable to the fault of another person is difficult for the friends and family members of the victim to accept. Knowing that an avoidable death was caused by the negligence of another person creates the sense that the victim has been cheated out of a normal lifespan. At the same time, the victim’s family has been cheated out of the love, affection, guidance, and support that the victim would have provided during the remainder of his or her natural life.
The sorrow and grief that follows a family member’s wrongful death lasts for years. Sometimes surviving family members never fully recover from the emotional trauma caused when another person’s carelessness leads to a loved one’s loss. That is especially true when a child dies. Time is said to heal all wounds, but sometimes the survivors learn to live with pain that diminishes but never really vanishes.
The trauma caused by a wrongful death can be manifested in many ways. Grief can lead to sleep disorders, depression, and anxiety. It can produce stress that leads to physical problems, including ulcers and elevated blood pressure. Surviving family members might find themselves lost in memories, detached from the life that surrounds them. While a therapist or grief counselor can help teach coping skills, a person who negligently takes a life invariably victimizes friends and family members who are forced to endure the tragedy of loss.
When a loved one contracts a fatal disease, family members have time to prepare themselves for the inevitable. People have a chance to say their goodbyes. It is not easy to prepare for a loved one’s death, but everyone knows that lives eventually come to an end. When a life ends naturally, we find it easier to accept the suffering that accompanies loss, even if the death is premature. The opportunity to prepare for bereavement makes it easier to cope with grief when the loved one’s life is extinguished.
A death that results from negligence deprives family members of the opportunity to prepare. Spouses and other family members have no chance to express the feelings they want to share before their loved one dies. They cannot complete unfinished business or say the things that have been left unsaid. When a death is unexpected, people often regret that their last words were not the ones they would have wanted a loved one to take to the grave.
A death that is both avoidable and unexpected shatters worlds in ways that natural deaths do not. Family members become frustrated as they try to make sense of deaths that are senseless. Knowing that a person (rather than a virus or old age) caused a loved one’s death makes that death harder to endure. We expect people to be careful with other people’s lives. We know that accidents happen but that makes a death caused by carelessness no easier to accept.
The law cannot restore the life of a loved one who has died. No amount of financial compensation makes loss easier to endure. In fact, while the damages that can be awarded in wrongful death actions differ from state to state, California does not permit family members to seek compensation for grief, sorrow, or mental anguish.
California does, however, allow an award of compensation for those things that are lost as the result of a wrongful death. That includes lost family income but it also extends to noneconomic losses. A number of wrongful death lawyer Orange County can tell you that juries in wrongful death cases are instructed to award compensation for the lost love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support that the victim would have provided if he or she had not died.
In theory, compensation in a negligence case is intended to make the victim whole. In reality, that can never happen in a wrongful death case. The principle of compensation nevertheless recognizes that a deceased victim contributed to the lives of his or her family members in a number of important ways. A significant benefit of wrongful death compensation is the message it sends: the love and companionship that the lost family member provided had tremendous worth. Compensation for wrongful death does not supplant grief, but it does provide tangible recognition that a family member’s irreplaceable love had value.
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