The average settlement for a wrongful death claim in California can vary between only a few thousand dollars to over $1,000,000.
Every case is unique and every victim is different. This makes it impossible to say what an “average” settlement is because there is no “average” wrongful death case.
However, some factors will generally increase or decrease the settlement amount.
What is a California wrongful death claim?
In the state of California, a wrongful death action is a type of personal injury claim. It allows you as the victim’s surviving family members to pursue compensation for the losses that you have suffered by the victim’s death.
Wrongful death actions can be brought by, in the following order:
- spouses (or domestic partners)
- other descendants and/or financial dependents as determined by California statute
These damages include an amount of money that reflects the:
- financial support that the victim would have contributed to you, had they not passed away,
- burial expenses,
- funeral expenses,
- the value of the household services that the decedent would have provided,
- loss of consortium (love, companionship, intimacy, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, wisdom, guidance, and moral support),
- loss of companionship,
- loss of love suffered by you (the surviving spouse or domestic partner), and
- loss of moral support suffered by you.
A wrongful death suit is a type of personal injury case that is allowed by California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 CCP.1
Survival actions are often filed alongside wrongful death claims in California. These are lawsuits that aim to compensate the victim’s estate for losses that the victim would have recovered, had they survived the wrongful and fatal act. These claims are governed by California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30 CCP.2
The types of damages that are recoverable in a survival action include the victim’s:
- medical bills,
- lost wages,
- property damage, and
- punitive damages (typically only when the defendant exhibited extreme recklessness or acted with intentional harm, such as road rage).
Note that, under California law, neither wrongful death nor survival actions can recover compensation for the victim’s pain and suffering.3
Together, wrongful death claims and survival actions can recover the compensation that you deserve. This can amount to several hundreds of thousands of dollars. A wrongful death attorney can provide a case evaluation and help you navigate this complicated legal field.
What are some factors that influence the average wrongful death settlement?
Because every case is unique and the amount of compensation that you are entitled to recover will depend on your particular circumstances, it is impossible to estimate what is an “average” wrongful death settlement.
However, there are some factors that will likely increase or decrease the jury’s perceived value of the case. This will influence the settlement offer.
Some factors that can increase the settlement include:
- the victim was young at the time of their death,
- the victim was a part of a large family, with numerous children or other legal dependents,
- the age of the victim’s children or dependents,
- the spouse of the victim was financially reliant on the victim,
- the value of the gifts or inheritances that you were likely to expect,
- the circumstances of the victim’s death,
- the victim was an important member of their community, and
- the victim had an upright and strong moral character.4
Some factors that can decrease the amount of a wrongful death settlement include:
- the victim was relatively old or retired,
- there are few or no close family relations and no spouse,
- the victim’s relative isolation from the community,
- the victim had a criminal background, and
- the victim contributed to the tragedy, like if the deceased person were partially at fault for a fatal car accident. (Learn more about California’s pure comparative fault laws.)5
Juries are not supposed to take the following factors into account when issuing a wrongful death verdict:
- your grief, sorrow, or mental anguish,
- the deceased’s pain and suffering, or
- the poverty or wealth of the victim or you.6
However, many of the factors that must be considered when issuing a verdict are integrally related to the factors that cannot be considered. This can make it difficult to predict the value of a verdict for a wrongful death case. This can make it hard to estimate the value of a settlement that is offered to avoid a verdict.
You stand to benefit by being legally represented by a skilled personal injury attorney with a strong record of negotiating large settlements. Do not attempt to negotiate with insurance companies by yourself as they will do everything to low-ball you.
Note that if the defendant’s insurance policy limits do not cover all the damages, the defendant can be sued for the difference.
Are there any damage caps in California?
With one exception, California does not cap the amount of damages that you can recover in cases that fall under California’s wrongful death law. This means that the victim’s estate and you can recover the full amount of compensation that you deserve.
The only exception in California is the cap on non-economic damages for wrongful death claims that stem from medical malpractice. Starting in 2023, if the deceased person died because of a doctor’s negligence, then only up to $500,000 can be recovered for their:
- physical pain,
- mental anguish,
- emotional suffering and distress, and
- loss of consortium.
However, because neither wrongful death nor survival actions can recover damages for pain, suffering, or disfigurement, this damage cap tends not to influence the outcome of a case.
Note that this $500,000 cap will increase by $50,000 every new year until it reaches $1,000,000 in 2033.7
Are wrongful death lawsuits paid in structured settlements or a lump sum?
When insurance companies make a settlement offer on a wrongful death claim, it can come in the form of a lump sum or a structured settlement.
A lump sum offer is more common. You would receive the settlement all at once, often in a single check. This can be helpful if there are already a lot of expenses to pay.
A structured settlement stretches the payment out over a set period of time. Once the payment terms of a structured settlement have been agreed to, they cannot be changed. Structured settlements are often used to defray the long-term loss of household earnings.8
Would I owe taxes after settling a personal injury or wrongful death case?
Generally, the value of a wrongful death settlement is not taxable. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) excludes money received for personal injuries or sickness from your gross income. This includes wrongful death settlements.9
However, if you have previously deducted the deceased victim’s medical expenses from the accident, you cannot deduct them, again.
A California wrongful death lawyer from a local law firm can provide the legal advice necessary to recover the full financial compensation that you deserve, while abiding by relevant tax laws.
What are some recent wrongful death settlements in California?
Most settlements are kept confidential. Though some of the biggest settlements within the last two years include:
California wrongful death case
|Dominguez v. City of San Diego
|Williams, et al. v. City of Pasadena, et al.
|Sommers v. City of Santa Clara, et al.
|Harder, et al. v. Golden State Portables, et al.
|Winfield v. YTLife Investments, LLC, et al.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 CCP. See also King v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (
- California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30 CCP.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 377.34 CCP.
- See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 3921.
- Same. See also Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3rd 804.
- Assembly Bill 35 (2022). Prior to 2023, the cap was $250,000.
- See, for example, Matthews v. Liberty Assignment Corp. (. )
- 26 CFR 1.104-1.