If you want to do some preliminary research to help you get a better feel of the law governing Orange County wrongful death cases, reading wrongful death blog posts and other information provided on this website is a good place to start. Here are some additional resources to help you understand California’s wrongful death law.
Statutes are enacted by the legislature. They are not always easy to understand. It is often necessary to read several statutes together to get a complete understanding of the law. A familiarity with the rules that lawyers follow when interpreting a statute is also useful.
With those caveats, the heart of California’s wrongful death law is found in section 377.60 of California’s Code of Civil Procedure. That statute identifies the people who are entitled to bring a wrongful death lawsuit. With some exceptions, family members who can sue for wrongful death are generally the surviving spouse and children, or the family members who would inherit if the wrongful death victim had died without a will. By reading the statute, however, you will find that identifying persons who can sue for wrongful death is not always so straightforward.
Section 377.61 of the Code of Civil Procedure is also important. It allows juries to award wrongful death damages “that, under all the circumstances of the case, may be just.” That simple rule is again subject to exceptions and the concept of “just” damages is not as easy to understand as it might seem. California jury instructions (discussed below) provide a better resource for understanding wrongful death compensation.
Finally, sections 377.30 to 377.35 of the Code of Civil Procedure talk about the related concept of a survivorship action. A survivorship lawsuit addresses injuries and losses that the wrongful death victim experienced prior to death. Survivorship lawsuits are usually brought by the victim’s estate while wrongful death actions are commenced by surviving family members. In appropriate cases, however, it makes sense to bring a survivorship action together with a wrongful death action.
Since most wrongful death lawsuits are based on an allegation that the death was caused by another person’s negligence, it is useful to understand the language of Civil Code sections 1708 and 1714(a). Section 1708 instructs individuals within the State of California to “to abstain from injuring the person or property of another.” The relevant part of section 1714(a) provides: “Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself.”
The general rule is that individuals and businesses have a duty to use ordinary care to avoid causing foreseeable injury to others. The failure to carry out that duty is said to be negligent. Certain exceptions to that rule once existed. Property owners, for example, were shielded from liability if trespassers were harmed by hazards they encountered on the owner’s property. Section 1714(a) does away with those exceptions and imposes a duty to avoid causing foreseeable harm to all people, including (for example) trespassers. That statute can be critically important in a wrongful death action if the victim entered the property owner’s premises without permission and died because of a hazardous property condition.
Among the best resources for understanding how wrongful death law will apply in Orange County are California’s wrongful death jury instructions. They are written in plain language that ordinary jurors can understand.
The instructions in the 400 series explain the concepts of negligence. Instructions 400 and 401 cover the basic elements that apply in most cases.
Civil jury instruction 3921 describes the law of damages in California wrongful death actions. It explains the categories of compensation that family members are entitled to seek when they pursue a wrongful death claim.
The jury instructions include “annotations” or brief explanations of rules that have been decided by court cases. While annotations are useful, they are not a substitute for reading the entire case. Again, the best resource is a wrongful death lawyer who is familiar with case law and who understands how to apply the law announced in court decisions to the facts of each unique case.