Wrongful Death Lawsuits by Families of Murder Victims

Can the family of a murder victim sue the perpetrator?

Can the family of a murder victim sue the perpetrator for wrongful death? Often times yes, says this personal injury lawyer and former prosecutor. The surviving family of a homicide victim can file a civil case against the killer, seeking money damages for medical bills, funeral expenses and punitive damages. Because the standard of proof is lower in a civil case than a criminal case, prevailing in court can be easier than with the criminal prosecution. The biggest challenge in many of these cases is collecting on the judgment. The defendant may have no money or assets. More info at https://www.shouselaw.com/personal-injury/murder-victim-lawsuits or call (888) 327-4652 for a free consultation. If you or a loved one is charged with a crime we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Families of murder or manslaughter victims can bring two types of lawsuits:

It is not necessary to secure a murder or manslaughter conviction in order for the families to sue the perpetrator. In fact, criminal charges do not even need to be filed.

Wrongful death and survival actions do not need to be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil lawsuit, nine of the 12 jurors simply need to conclude that it was more likely than not that the defendant was responsible for the victim's death.

The difference between a wrongful death suit and a survival action

Wrongful death lawsuits and survival actions can be brought in a single lawsuit or in separate actions.

Regardless, they cover different types of losses. Wrongful death actions compensate the families for their direct monetary losses. Survival actions cover losses the victim could have sued for had he or she lived. They are known as “survival actions” because the right to sue “survives” the victim's death.[1]

It is important for victim's families of to bring both types of suits wherever possible. It is especially important to allege a survival action since it is the only one in which punitive damages may be recovered.

The key differences between the two types of actions are illustrated in the following chart and discussed, in detail, below: 

Wrongful Death – CCP 377.60

“Survival” Action – CCP 377.30

Brought by close family members

Brought by personal representative of estate

Compensates family for their losses

Compensates the estate for the deceased's losses

Economic losses recoverable

Economic losses recoverable

No pain and suffering recoverable

No pain and suffering recoverable

No punitive damages recoverable

Punitive damages are recoverable

Suit must be brought within 2 years of death

Suit must be brought by the later of: 2 years from wrongful act or 6 months after death

To help you better understand how families of murder victims can sue for damages, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

grieving woman with her two young sons

1. What is a wrongful death action?

California's “wrongful death” statute is Code of Civil Procedure 377.60. It allows close family members of someone who died as the result of a wrongful act to recover for losses such as:

  • Funeral and burial expenses;
  • Loss of consortium (such as loss of the victim's love, companionship, comfort care, moral support); and/or
  • In the case of a spouse or registered domestic partner, the loss of sexual relations. 

Unfortunately, wrongful death actions do not include damages for:

  • The grief or sorrow experienced by the family members, or
  • Any losses that can be obtained in a “survival” cause of action.

Losses for grief and sorrow are not recoverable at all by murder victims' families.

But punitive damages may be recovered in a survival action. These are damages that are not related to actual monetary damages suffered by the victim or family.

Rather, punitive damages exist solely to punish the wrongdoer and serve as a negative example to others.[2]

2. What is a “survival” cause of action?

Unlike a cause of action for wrongful death, a “survival” action -- also known as a “survivor” action --- does not compensate the victim's family members for their losses.[3]

Rather, it allows the representative of the victim's estate to sue for losses the victim could have sued for had he or she lived.

The reason a survival action exists is that under normal circumstances, a plaintiff's right to sue a defendant is lost when the plaintiff dies. But California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30 allows the personal representative of the victim's estate to step into the victim's shoes and sue.

Requirement that the victim survive at least briefly

Oddly, in order to recover for survivor damages, the victim must have survived, at least briefly, after the wrongful act.

This is because California law does not allow the estate to recover for the victim's pain and suffering. As a result, the victim must have experienced actual monetary losses after the wrongful act but prior to death.

Fortunately, these losses do not need to be large. They can be something as little as damage to clothing or minor personal property. And as we will see, these small damages can lead to a big recovery.

3. What damages are recoverable in a wrongful death lawsuit?

"Wrongful death" lawsuits compensate families of murder victims for out-of-pocket expenses as well as the loss of the victim's companionship.

Damages for wrongful death can include (but are not limited to):

  • Funeral and burial expenses,
  • Amounts the deceased would have earned as income, and
  • Compensation for the loss of the deceased's companionship and support.

4. What damages can be recovered in a "survival action"?

Damages that can be recovered in a survivor action start with the economic (monetary) losses the victim could have sued for after the wrongful act. They typically include costs such as:

  • Medical bills the victim incurred because of the wrongful act,
  • Damage to the victim's property that occurred as the result of the wrongful act, and/or
  • Wages the victim lost between the wrongful act and the date of death.[4]

As noted, there must have been time for the victim to sustain losses before death.

If the deceased was killed instantaneously a survival action usually is not possible (though it does not affect the family members' right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit).

Examples of survival action losses:

  • Emergency room bills for a child who died as the result of long-term abuse,
  • Ambulance bill for someone who died on the way to the hospital after being stabbed,
  • Medical bills of a senior killed by nursing home abuse,
  • The wrecked car of a teenager killed by a drunk driver (vehicular manslaughter),
  • The damaged clothing and purse of a mass shooting victim.

It may seem as if some of these damages are not worth suing for.

But as long as there is actual economic damage, the estate's representative can seek punitive damages (discussed below).

woman holding lilies and touching a casket

5. Can a murder victim's family get damages for pain and suffering and/or punitive damages?

Unfortunately, neither a wrongful death suit nor a survival action permits recovery of damages for the grief or pain and suffering of either the victim or his/her family.

But punitive damages may be recovered in a survival cause of action in California. And they can often far exceed the actual monetary damages recovered.

This makes it important for a victim's estate to sue under a survivor action wherever possible.

6. Does the murderer need to have been convicted?

No. For instance, football player O.J. Simpson was found “not guilty” of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

Afterwards, the Brown and Goldman families sued Simpson for wrongful death and a survival cause of action.

A jury found Simpson liable to both families and awarded significant punitive damages.

7. How are punitive damages determined in a survival action?

In the survivor cause of action, there may be minimal economic damages. This is especially true when a victim's death occurs promptly after the wrongful act.

But unlike direct economic damages, punitive damages in a survival action are based on three main factors:

  1. The reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct,
  2. The actual harm suffered by the victim, and
  3. The wealth of the defendant.[5]

The result is that punitive damages can often be very high in relation to the victim's actual monetary losses.

For instance, in the O.J. Simpson case, the court found only nominal (minimal) economic damages since the victims died at the murder scene.

But each victim's estate was awarded $12.5 million in punitive damages.[6]

This illustrates why bringing a survival cause of action is often even more important than suing for wrongful death.

8. Who can sue on behalf of a murder victim?

Under California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 the following family members or heirs can bring a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a murder victim:

  • Spouses,
  • Domestic partners,[7]
  • Children,
  • 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 50% of their financial support, and
  • Anyone else who would be entitled to the deceased's property under California's laws on intestate succession. 

A survival action, on the other hand, must be brought by the estate's personal representative.

Often the personal representative will be a member of the victim's family. But some victim's estates are represented by a business representative, such as a lawyer, accountant or banker, or a personal friend.

The actions can be brought in separate lawsuits but for convenience sake are usually combined into a single case.

9. Can anyone besides the perpetrator be sued for murder?

Sometimes, yes. Obviously, the murderer is a potential defendant in a civil suit.

But legally, there may be other parties responsible.

For instance, perhaps a ride-sharing company failed to conduct a required background check of one of its drivers.

Or perhaps a building owner may not have provided adequate lighting or security and can be held liable under California's premises liability laws.

Your California injury lawyer will review your case and help you determine what parties may be legally liable for damages.

10. What is the statute of limitations to sue for a murder?

The California statute of limitations for wrongful death and survival actions "accrue" (begin running) on different dates.

The statute of limitations for a survival action in California begins at the time of the wrongful act. The estate can then sue until the later of:

  • Two years from the wrongful act, or 
  • Six months after the victim's death.[8]

A wrongful death action, on the other hand, accrues when the victim dies. The family has two years from that date on which to sue.[9]

Example: Joanie is struck by a drunk driver on New Year's Eve 2015. She ends up in a coma and finally expires on October 30, 2017.
Joanie's family decides to sue the driver who hit her. Their wrongful death action accrues on Joanie's death – October 30, 2017. They can file the wrongful death lawsuit at any time within two years afterward.
The statute of limitations for the survival action began to run on the date of the accident, however – that is, on December 31, 2015. But the representative of the estate can still sue for up to six months after Joanie's death – that is, until April 29, 2018.
Effectively this means that the family must track the earlier date in order to sue under both causes of action.

An experienced California personal injury attorney can help you figure out the dates by which you must file a lawsuit.

Was your loved one the victim of murder or manslaughter? Call us for help…

Losing a family member to a wrongful act is difficult under any circumstances. But the victim still deserves justice.

We are personal injury lawyers who fight to hold the perpetrators of reprehensible acts responsible for their actions.

If someone you love was killed by the wrongful actions of another, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. You may be able to obtain significant compensation.

Call us at 855-LAWFIRM to discuss your case in confidence with a knowledgeable and compassionate lawyer.

Legal references:

  1. Grant v. McAuliffe (1953) 41 Cal.2d 859.
  2. California Civil Code § 3294.
  3. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.30.
  4. See e.g., County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 292.
  5. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.34.
  6. Rufo v. Simpson (2001) 103 Cal. Rptr. 2d 492.
  7. 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 297(b).
  8. California Code of Civil Procedure 336.1.
  9. California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1.

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