Code of Civil Procedure § 377.60 CCP is the primary California wrongful death statute. This section allows certain heirs to bring a lawsuit seeking damages. Eligible parties include a deceased person’s:
- surviving spouse,
- domestic partner, or
The code section reads as follows:
337.60. A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent’s personal representative on their behalf:
(a) The decedent’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession. If the parents of the decedent would be entitled to bring an action under this subdivision, and the parents are deceased, then the legal guardians of the decedent, if any, may bring an action under this subdivision as if they were the decedent’s parents.
(b) (1) Whether or not qualified under subdivision (a), if they were dependent on the decedent, the putative spouse, children of the putative spouse, stepchildren, parents, or the legal guardians of the decedent if the parents are deceased.
(2) As used in this subdivision, “putative spouse” means the surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who is found by the court to have believed in good faith that the marriage to the decedent was valid.
(c) A minor, whether or not qualified under subdivision (a) or (b), if, at the time of the decedent’s death, the minor resided for the previous 180 days in the decedent’s household and was dependent on the decedent for one-half or more of the minor’s support.
(d) This section applies to any cause of action arising on or after January 1, 1993.
(e) The addition of this section by Chapter 178 of the Statutes of 1992 was not intended to adversely affect the standing of any party having standing under prior law, and the standing of parties governed by that version of this section as added by Chapter 178 of the Statutes of 1992 shall be the same as specified herein as amended by Chapter 563 of the Statutes of 1996.
(f) (1) For the purpose of this section, “domestic partner” means a person who, at the time of the decedent’s death, was the domestic partner of the decedent in a registered domestic partnership established in accordance with subdivision (b) of Section 297 of the Family Code.
(2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), for a death occurring prior to January 1, 2002, a person may maintain a cause of action pursuant to this section as a domestic partner of the decedent by establishing the factors listed in paragraphs (1) to (6), inclusive, of subdivision (b) of Section 297 of the Family Code, as it read pursuant to Section 3 of Chapter 893 of the Statutes of 2001, prior to its becoming inoperative on January 1, 2005.
(3) The amendments made to this subdivision during the 2003–04 Regular Session of the Legislature are not intended to revive any cause of action that has been fully and finally adjudicated by the courts, or that has been settled, or as to which the applicable limitations period has run.
A wrongful death lawsuit is when an heir sues a person or entity after the party caused the decedent’s wrongful death. 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.1
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.2
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 in 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,3 and
- the reasonable value of household services the deceased would have provided.4
Non-economic damages can include compensation for the loss of the deceased’s:
- society and companionship,
- moral support,
- training and guidance, and
- sexual relations.5
There is no fixed standard for deciding the amount of non-economic damages in a California wrongful death case. A jury can award any amount that is reasonable based on evidence and common sense.
Oddly, non-economic damages may not include amounts for the heir’s grief, sorrow or pain and suffering caused by their loved one’s death.6
What about punitive damages?
An heir cannot generally recover punitive damages in wrongful death cases under California law.7
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.8 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.9
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.10
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.11
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.
For more in-depth information, refer to these scholarly articles:
- Wrongful Death Actions in California. Some Needed Amendments – California Law Review.
- Wrongful Death Recoveries in California: Is the Decedent’s Negligence a Defense after Li – Pacific Law Journal.
- California Wrongful Death Statute – Correcting an “Unintended Mistake” – McGeorge Law Review.
- Assessing Economic Damages in Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Litigation: The State of California – Journal of Forensic Economics.
- Survival of Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death Cases – University of San Francisco Law Review.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 CCP.
- California Family Code 297b.
- Vander Lind v. Superior Court (1983) 146 Cal.App.3d 358.
- See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921, note 3.
- See same. See also Allen v. Toledo (1980) 109 Cal.App.3d 415.
- Krouse v. Graham (1977) 19 Cal.3d 59.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921.
- California Civil Code 3294(d). See also Romo v. Ford Motor Co. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 73.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.
- Norgart v. Upjohn Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 383.
- See California Courts website, Statute of Limitations.