California's “wrongful death” law lets families recover damages when a loved one has died as the result of someone's wrongful act. The law is set forth in California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60.
Wrongful death damages 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.
"Wrongful death" is similar to a cause of action for "loss of consortium" under California law. Loss of consortium applies in situations in which a spouse or registered domestic partner is deprived of the companionship and intimacy of a living partner due to someone's wrongful act.
A wrongful death lawsuit is frequently coupled with a California "survival" cause of action under Code of Civil Procedure 377.30. Survival causes of actions are brought on behalf of the victim's estate to compensate for losses suffered by the victim (as opposed to the family) from the wrongful act.
Note that punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death lawsuit in California. The only way to get damages from a wrongdoer for a wrongful death is through a survival cause of action.
To help you better understand California's wrongful death law, our California personal injury lawyers, discuss below:
- 1. Who can sue for wrongful death in California?
- 2. What kinds of acts support a claim?
- 3. What damages are recoverable for “wrongful death” in California?
- 3.1. Economic damages
- 3.2. Non-economic damages
- 3.3. Can heirs get punitive damages in a California wrongful death case?
- 4. The difference between “wrongful death” and a “survival” action in California
- 5. How long is the statute of limitations for a California wrongful death claim?
California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 allows the following family members (or their personal representatives) to bring a wrongful death lawsuit:
- Domestic partners,1
- 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.
Wrongful acts can include (without limitation):
- 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 damages are intended to compensate heirs for the value of 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. We discuss each of these in detail, below.
The period for which such damages are recoverable is the shorter of:
- The deceased individual's life expectancy at the time of the wrongful act, or
- The life expectancy of the plaintiff at the time of the wrongful act.3
Life expectancy is a question of fact for the jury, taking into account all relevant factors including health, lifestyle and occupation.4
“Economic damages” for wrongful death in California can include (without limitation):
- 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;5 and
- The reasonable value of household services the deceased would have provided.6
“Non-economic damages” in California wrongful death cases can include, without limitation, compensation for the loss of the deceased's:
- Society and companionship,
- Moral support,
- Training and guidance, and
- Sexual relations.7
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 for wrongful death may not include amounts for the heir's grief, sorrow or pain and suffering caused by their loved one's death.8
No. An heir suing for wrongful death cannot generally recover punitive damages under California law.9 (The exception is if the deceased was killed as the result of felony homicide for which the defendant has been convicted).10
Punitive damages may be available, however, through a “survival action” on behalf of the decedent's estate.11
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 family for their losses, a survival lawsuit lets the heirs sue on behalf of the deceased's estate.
A survival lawsuit can compensate the deceased person's estate for two types of losses:
- Claims unrelated to the death and which the deceased had the right to sue for as of the date of death, and/or
- Claims for the injury that caused the death, provided the person survived those injuries for at least some period of time (no matter how short).
Survival actions are complicated and we discuss them in detail in a separate article. But one important difference is that unlike a wrongful death action, a survival action can include an award for punitive damages.
Note additionally that California wrongful death and survival actions can be, and often are, tried together when they arise out of the same underlying wrongful act.
Example: Martin's wife, Emma, goes into the hospital for a routine procedure. But the anesthesiologist makes an error and Emma ends up in a coma. One month later, she passes away.
Martin brings two lawsuits against the hospital: a wrongful death action for Martin's loss of Emma's income and companionship, and a medical malpractice action, which “survives” Emma's death.
The California statute of limitations for both wrongful death and survival actions is two years.
In a wrongful death case, the two years "accrues" (starts running) on the date of death.
For survival actions, the estate has two years to sue from the later of:
- The date of an injury, or
- Six months after death.
Did someone you love suffer a wrongful death in California? Call us for help…
If someone you love died because of someone else's wrongful act, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.
As former cops and investigators, we understand how to connect the dots and put together a compelling case for recovering damages during this difficult time.
Call us at (855) LAWFIRM or fill out the form on this page to speak to one of our knowledgeable California wrongful death attorneys.
You may be entitled to significant compensation.
- 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).
- See, e.g., Barrett v. Superior Court (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 1176.
- See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921.
- Allen v. Toledo (1980) 109 Cal.App.3d 415.
- Vander Lind v. Superior Court (1983) 146 Cal.App.3d 358.
- See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3921, note 3.
- Same. See also Allen v. Toledo, note 4.
- Krouse v. Graham (1977) 19 Cal.3d 59.
- See notes to CACI 3921, note 3.
- California Civil Code 3294(d). See also Romo v. Ford Motor Co. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 738.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 377.34.