In California, an accidental death may entitle certain family members to pursue compensation. That compensation usually involves lost financial contributions that the deceased family member would have made to the family, the value of services the deceased would have provided, and the loss of the deceased's companionship and guidance.
Not all deaths are wrongful deaths, and not all relatives can pursue a wrongful death claim. Here are some questions a lawyer might ask when deciding whether you can bring a wrongful death claim in California.
Was the Death of a Relative Caused by Another Person?
A wrongful death claim can be brought against anyone who causes the death of another person without lawful authority. Killing in self-defense is an example of causing a death with lawful authority.
Most intentional killings do not result in wrongful death claims because they are not covered by insurance and the people who commit them usually go to prison. When the killer has enough wealth to pay compensation, however, an intentional killing might produce a wrongful death claim.
More commonly, wrongful death claims are initiated after a family member is killed due to the negligence of another person or business.
Did a Negligent Act Cause a Death?
A death caused entirely by the deceased's own careless will not entitle family members to compensation. However, if any another person's carelessness contributed to the death, even in a small way, the deceased's family members may be able to pursue a wrongful death claim.
Common examples of negligence that contributed to deaths include:
- Collisions with cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, and busses
- Motorcycle accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Collisions with trains
- Surgical errors
- Medication errors
- Failure to diagnose or correctly treat a serious condition
- Failure to recognize fetal distress
- Ignoring the health needs of nursing home patients
- Failure to protect hospital patients from infections
- Falling debris from building demolition
- Tools or materials dropped from a height
Hazardous property conditions
- Exposed wiring that causes electrocution
- Uncovered swimming pool that attracts children
- Broken stair treads that cause a deadly fall
- Improperly stored chemicals or explosives
- Guns that are not locked in a gun safe
- Failures of ski lifts or amusement park rides
Dangerous or defective products
- Medical devices that fail
- Toys that cause infants to choke
- Automotive components (e.g., brakes or tires) that fail
- Cancer-causing products
- Dangerous drugs
The primary exception to the rule that family members can seek wrongful death compensation for a death caused by negligence applies to work-related deaths. In most of those cases, compensation is awarded as a workers' compensation death benefit.
In addition, it is not always necessary to prove negligence when the claim involves a dangerous product or a vicious dog. Family members should review the facts with a wrongful death lawyer to determine whether compensation for a death might be available even if there is no evidence of negligence.
Are You a Relative Who Can Participate in a Wrongful Death Claim?
Every state has its own rules about who can participate in a wrongful death claim. In California, certain family members can bring or join a wrongful death claim. They include the victim's:
- Domestic partner (in a registered partnership)
- Living children
- Children of a deceased child
Certain other family members can participate if they depended on the victim for financial support at the time of the victim's death, including:
- Minors who lived with the deceased for more than 180 days prior to the deceased's death
If the victim had no living children, then siblings and other relatives may participate in a wrongful death claim if they would have inherited from the deceased if the deceased had died without a will. That rule applies whether or not the deceased victim had a will. If you are uncertain about your ability to participate in a wrongful death claim, you should get advice from a California wrongful death attorney.
Did the Victim Die Immediately?
If a family member was injured but did not die immediately, the injury victim's estate may have a separate claim (known as a survivorship claim) for the victim's medical expenses, lost income, and pain and suffering until the date of death. The proceeds of that claim are distributed according to the terms of the victim's will, or according to the California law of intestacy if the victim had no will.
Survivorship claims are often joined with wrongful death claims. A California wrongful death lawyer can help family members understand whether a survivorship claim, a wrongful death claim, or both should be pursued.
When Did the Death Occur?
If you wait too long to bring a wrongful death claim, you will lose your right to seek compensation. In California, wrongful death claims must be filed in court within two years after the accident that causes the death, or within six months after the death, whichever occurs later.
There are a few exceptions to that rule, such as cases in which the negligent act that causes the death is concealed or the accident victim is a minor. A California wrongful death lawyer can advise family members about their right to seek wrongful death compensation if some time has passed. To protect the family's right to pursue justice, however, it is best to obtain legal advice as soon as possible.