California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 CCP is the statute that allows certain people to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Eligible parties include a deceased person’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children. These parties are sometimes referred to as “heirs” in a wrongful death cause of action. The party that passed is often referred to as the “decedent.”
A wrongful death action is when an heir sues a person or entity after the party caused the wrongful death of the decedent. The claim exists for wrongful acts that were either:
- reckless, or
If an heir is successful in bringing a claim, he/she is entitled to receive certain damages. These include:
- burial and funeral expenses,
- amounts the deceased would have earned as income, and
- compensation for the loss of the deceased’s companionship and support.
Note that the statute of limitations for filing a suit under CCP Section 377.60 is typically two years from the date of the decedent’s death. Some exceptions to this general rule do apply. For example, if a person’s death was caused by medical malpractice, then the statute of limitations is three years from the date of death.
How does CCP 377.60 affect a California wrongful death claim?
Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 is California’s wrongful death statute. The law sets forth those parties or loved ones who may file a wrongful death suit following a decedent’s death.
In particular, the code section allows the following family members (or their personal representatives) to bring a lawsuit:
- surviving spouses,
- domestic partners,
- grandchildren (if the deceased person’s children are also deceased),
- other minor children (such as stepchildren) who were dependent on the deceased for at least one-half of their financial support, and
- anyone else who would be entitled to the deceased’s property under California’s laws on intestate succession.
Note that a “domestic partner” is a person who, at the time of the decedent’s death, was a registered domestic partner in accordance with California Family Code 297b. In some cases, the putative spouse can sue as well.
If a family member is interested in filing a good faith wrongful death claim, for instance in Los Angeles or Sacramento’s Superior Court, then he/she should seek help from a skilled personal injury or tort attorney.
What is a wrongful death claim?
In a wrongful death case, family members attempt to recover damages for a decedent’s death when that death occurred because of a person’s wrongful act.
Some “wrongful acts” that may cause death include:
- car accidents (including being hit by a DUI driver),
- pedestrian “knock-downs”,
- “slip-and-fall” accidents,
- assault and battery,
- murder or manslaughter,
- elder abuse or neglect,
- child abuse or neglect, and
- medical malpractice.
Wrongful death claims are allowed in California, as well as all states within the United States.
What damages are available?
Wrongful death damages are intended to compensate heirs for the value of the support they could reasonably have expected to receive from the deceased if he or she had lived.
Such compensatory damages can include both economic and non-economic losses.
“Economic damages” in California can include:
- the financial support the deceased would have contributed to the family during their lifetimes,
- the loss of gifts or benefits the heirs could have expected to receive from the deceased,
- funeral and burial expenses, and
- the reasonable value of household services the deceased would have provided.
“Non-economic damages” can include compensation for the loss of the deceased’s:
- society and companionship,
- moral support,
- training and guidance, and
- sexual relations.
There is no fixed standard for deciding the amount of noneconomic damages in a California wrongful death case. A jury can award any amount that is reasonable based on the evidence and common sense.
Oddly, noneconomic damages may not include amounts for the heir’s grief, sorrow or pain and suffering caused by their loved one’s death.
What about punitive damages?
An heir cannot generally recover punitive damages in wrongful death cases under California law.
There is an exception to this rule if the deceased was killed as the result of felony homicide for which the defendant has been convicted. In this event, punitive damages are allowed.
What is the statute of limitations for a California wrongful death cause of action?
The statute of limitations for a party to bring a wrongful death action in California is two years. The two-year time period starts to run at the time of the person’s death.
Note that there are some exceptions to this two-year limitation period of time. One pertains to the discovery rule. The discovery rule says that the statute of limitations in a wrongful death suit does not start until the victim’s surviving family members discover that the victim died.
Other exceptions to the general two-year statute of limitations period include:
- a three-year statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases, and
- a six-month statute of limitations period when a case is filed against a public or government entity.
Further, if a minor is suing for the death of a parent, then the minor must file an action within two years from the day he/she turns 18 years of age.
Is a wrongful death suit the same as a “survival action?”
California wrongful death lawsuits are sometimes combined with a so-called “survival action” under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30.
While a wrongful death lawsuit compensates the deceased person’s surviving family members for their losses, a survival lawsuit lets the heirs sue on behalf of the deceased’s estate.
Note that one important difference between a wrongful death claim and a survival action is that the latter can include an award for punitive damages.
Also see our page on the average wrongful death settlement in California.
 California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 CCP.
 California Family Code 297b.
 See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921, note 3.
 California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921.
 California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.