Under California law, the surviving family members of someone who died as a result of the unlawful conduct of another may bring an action for wrongful death. A death is “wrongful” if it is caused by negligent, reckless or intentional misconduct. Death resulting from medical negligence, an automobile accident or even a slip and fall are but a few examples. Only surviving family members (heirs at law, such as spouse and children) may bring a wrongful death lawsuit. It is not enough to have been close friends or even someone who lived with the deceased.
Nothing can ever undo the devastation of losing a close family member due to the unlawful conduct of a careless driver or a negligent manufacturer or some other wrongdoing, but following through with a civil lawsuit is one way to ensure accountability and at least some semblance of closure. An experienced personal injury attorney with more than two decades of experience at handling such cases can help.
DAMAGES RECOVERABLE IN WRONGFUL DEATH MATTERS
In a wrongful death action, there are certain limitations on the damages recoverable against the defendant. The general (or non-economic) damages recoverable include compensation for the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support, enjoyment of sexual relations, training and guidance. Under the law, a jury is not permitted to award compensation for grief, sorrow, or mental anguish, or the decedent’s pain and suffering. Additionally, the law does not allow the trier of fact to consider the poverty or wealth of the decedent. In essence, as difficult as it may seem, jurors are asked to place a value on the relationship that was lost as a result of the wrongful death.
In addition to the general damages, there are special (or economic) losses that may be recovered as a result of losing a loved one. Those “economic” losses include the financial support, if any, that the decedent would have contributed to the surviving family, during their life expectancy immediately before his/her death or the life expectancy of the family members, whichever is shorter. Compensation may also be awarded for the loss of gifts or benefits that the family would have received from the decedent, funeral and burial expenses and the reasonable value of household services that the decedent would have provided. Generally, the largest component of the economic damages claimed in a death case relate to the loss of the decedent’s earnings, the money they would have earned during their “life expectancy.”
Life expectancy (the number of years the deceased would have lived absent the misconduct) is often determined by reference to generally accepted tables setting forth the average life span of a person of the same age. For example, a male currently 55 years of age is expected to live another 24.4 years. Other factors that may be considered are the health, habits, activities, lifestyle, and occupation of the deceased just prior to their passing. This topic is sometimes the subject of expert, medical testimony at trial.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE LOST A LOVED ONE
It is always important to know your legal rights when there has been a tragic loss of life. No amount of compensation can ever be a substitute for the relationship lost, but civil justice can bring accountability, closure and the compensation the law allows.