When a death in California is caused by the carelessness or misconduct of another person, the victim’s spouse and certain family members are entitled to seek compensation by making a wrongful death claim.
Some wrongful death claims are settled soon after they are submitted to the responsible person’s insurance company. Other cases take longer to resolve particularly when the cause of the accident or the amount of compensation due is unclear.
When you hire a lawyer to seek wrongful death compensation, they will need to conduct a thorough investigation to establish responsibility for the fatal accident. If the police gathered evidence at the accident scene and the facts are clear, that investigation might proceed quickly.
For instance, if witnesses saw a driver run a red light and blood tests establish that the driver who caused the accident was intoxicated, the police reports might furnish all the evidence needed to establish fault for the accident.
Other cases take longer to investigate. If death resulted from a head-on collision near the middle of a highway, determining which vehicle crossed the center line and entered the other’s traffic lane may require an investigation by an expert. In a case like this, your attorney may need to hire an accident reconstruction engineer to determine the responsibility for the accident.
An expert may also be needed to provide an opinion about the speed at which the vehicles were traveling. The expert’s investigation might take some time to complete.
Establishing the amount of damages that family members are entitled to receive can also take time. Some categories of damages, like medical and burial expenses, are easy to calculate, while others are more likely to be disputed.
For instance, a surviving spouse who lost the benefit of a lifetime of income that would have been provided by the deceased spouse is entitled to recover that loss. Your lawyer may need to hire an economist (and in some cases, a vocational expert) to calculate the present value of the income the deceased spouse would have earned if he or she had reached the retirement age.
Most wrongful death claims settle out of court, sometimes without filing suit. These cases can often be completed very quickly.
If a lawsuit needs to be filed, however, the process of evidence gathering known as “discovery” might last for many months. The court will probably hold several hearings before the case is ready for trial. Busy courts with congested calendars may produce a long delay before a case is finally heard by a jury.
If the case is going to trial, it could take years.
When responsibility for an accident is clear, as in the case of a drunk driver who causes a death, insurance companies have little incentive to take a case to trial. Since they are in a weak bargaining position, they might want to get the claim off their books by settling promptly.
An insurance company might also want to reach a quick wrongful death lawsuit settlement to dispose of a case that will not result in a large payout, such as those cases involving elderly victims who were no longer earning income and who were near the end of their life expectancies.
By dragging out the proceedings, insurance companies hope to wear down family members who just want the case to end.
The insurance company may want to delay. If responsibility for the accident is unclear or if evidence suggests that the deceased was partially at fault, the insurance company has more room to bargain.
When a claim for damages is relatively substantial, the insurance company might not be in a hurry to pay the claim. It may want to hire experts of its own to arrive at a different computation of the family’s financial loss.
Sometimes, insurance companies use delay as a bargaining tactic. They count on family members who need money right away to accept less than full compensation rather than waiting months or years for the case to reach a jury.
In California, if you do not file a wrongful death lawsuit within two years after the date of death, you will lose your right to seek compensation. If you do not have legal representation, the insurance company might hope that the two years will pass with no lawsuit being filed.
The insurer might make a series of unreasonably low offers, anticipating that you will not know what the case is worth or that you will lose your right to collect compensation when the statute of limitations expires.
Wrongful death claims are complex. Not every family member is entitled to compensation. On the other hand, an unmarried domestic partner might be entitled to compensation. Different family members may be entitled to different amounts of compensation.
For instance, family members (like a spouse or minor children) who relied upon the deceased for income are generally entitled to greater compensation than parents or siblings who did not share in the deceased’s earnings. In some cases (such as those involving multiple car collisions), it may be necessary to present claims to several insurance companies.
Sorting out the amounts that each family member should receive from each insurance company can be a nightmare if you do not have the help of an experienced legal professional.
Determining the value of a wrongful death case is not easy. In addition to funeral and medical expenses, lost income, and loss of future support, a surviving family member may be entitled to recover the value of lost household services and other benefits (including gifts) that the deceased would have provided.
A value must also be assigned to noneconomic damages, including:
An experienced attorney can judge the settlement value of a wrongful death claim by comparing all of the factors in the case to similar claims that have been decided by juries. A wrongful death lawyer will know whether experts are needed to compute damages and can decide which experts are best suited for each case.
An attorney can also evaluate intangible factors that affect settlement value, including the credibility of witnesses and whether a jury will likely be sympathetic or antagonistic to the parties if the case goes to trial.
Experience counts. Anyone who tries to settle a wrongful death claim without representation by an attorney risks being short-changed. Insurance companies are not on your side. To assure that they pay fair compensation for your loss, you should maximize your bargaining power by hiring a wrongful death attorney to negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf.
Need help? Our wrongful death attorneys are here for you. We provide free consultations to anyone in California who has lost a loved one due to the negligence of another.
Contact us today by phone or form to receive compassionate assistance from attorney who have helped recover more than $1 billion in compensation.
Timothy J. Ryan & Associates has earned a national reputation for aggressive client advocacy and real results. We are proud to offer 100% free, confidential consultations.