How are wrongful death settlements handled in the state of California?
In California, much like the rest of the United States, a wrongful death is a type of claim that can be brought against a person or an entity who is alleged to have caused a wrongful death – meaning, their inaction, ineptitude, or negligence caused someone else to lose their life, a death for which they may be held liable.
The legal framework for most of the states in the Union functions under the basis of common law, with exceptions such as Texas, California, and Louisiana, which were based on civil law.
Under the basic principles of English common law, tort law is limited in such that only the victim of an injustice can file a claim against a liable party. In the case of a wrongful death, however, there is no surviving victim. This changed in 1846 with the Fatal Accidents Act introduced by Lord Campbell in the UK Parliament, codifying liability for causing a wrongful death into legislation.
This change is what led each US state to adopt its own wrongful death statutes – and although these differ from state to state, wrongful death actions generally work under the same basic principles:
Among other state-specific differences is whether a state differentiates between wrongful death actions and survivor’s actions. A wrongful death action sues an entity or an individual for causing someone’s death – a survivor’s action sues them for the emotional and financial damages incurred by a loved one’s loss, including funerary costs, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
A wrongful death claim can be levied against someone accused of murder, which is a criminal charge. Criminal and civil cases are handled separately, and can be levied for the same person’s death. This is partially relevant because there is a significantly lower burden of proof for a wrongful death claim than a murder charge – when accused of murder or manslaughter, the accused must be proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt.
When sued for a wrongful death, however, the evidence must simply weigh in favor of the accused’s liability, meaning that as long as there is a greater than 50 percent chance that they are guilty, the claim will have met its burden of proof. This is standard of proof is called the preponderance of the evidence.
In California, you can pen a survival action claim or a wrongful death claim separately. A wrongful death claim would allow an estate to be awarded damages for the beneficiaries (surviving family members of the decedent), whereas a survival action claim would allow the estate to be awarded damages that the decedent would have been able to recover if they had not died (lost earnings), as well as the cost of death itself (pain and suffering before death, punitive damages, funeral costs).
There are three basic qualifiers that may constitute a wrongful death: if the actions of an individual or entity led to the direct death of another person, and these actions were found to be negligent, reckless, or intentional.
Negligence and recklessness are two sides of a very similar, albeit critically distinct coin. The legal definitions can be complicated, but it boils down to the following: negligence means not doing what you shuold have done. Recklessness means doing something you should not have done.
In the end, they are similar. However, speeding in a school zone is reckless, whereas failing to properly maintain your vehicle is negligent.
An intentionally wrongful death usually refers to murder, or an action that was meant to harm the target, even if it wasn’t meant to kill, such as assault and battery.
Once a claim is made against an individual or entity that acted negligently, recklessly, or with the intent to hurt or kill, it is important for the evidence to establish that their actions caused the death, and that their actions were indeed negligent, reckless, or intentional.
Defendants for a wrongful death claim range from individuals with a murder charge to companies that designed a faulty product, or engineers who built a faulty bridge.
When a doctor is sued for a wrongful death, it is usually through a medical malpractice suit. Rather than simply prove negligence, which requires someone to act with a level of care below that of the average reasonable person, a doctor being sued for malpractice must have acted below the required standard of care for their profession.
Some entities are technically immune from a wrongful death lawsuit. For example, you cannot sue the army for the death of a soldier on the field of battle. Many government employees are also rendered immune from liability for their actions if they fall within the scope of their duty. Furthermore, the relatives of an employee dying on-the-job will usually need to make a claim through worker’s compensation, rather than suing the employer themselves.
Civil cases such as a wrongful death suit can be settled in and out of court. When settled out of court, the result is called a settlement. When settled in court, the result is called court-appointed compensation for damages.
There is no average payout for a wrongful death suit, because the circumstances of each case can differ wildly. However, it may help to have some idea of what kind of damages may be included in a wrongful death settlement:
It’s impossible to put a price on a loved one’s life, but wrongful death claims aim to help families seek justice for fatal negligence, recklessness, or even homicidal behavior. When a company’s inaction or incompetence caused deaths, a wrongful death claim can be punitive, forcing them to shut down or radically retool their product.
If your loved one’s death was wrongful, the first thing you should do is seek legal representation. The opposing party may want to contact you first, but try to refrain from answering any questions or saying anything specific.
Corporations and businesses invest heavily in insurance companies and legal teams to minimize the cost of a potential lawsuit, so make sure that you are represented by trusted and experienced professionals. Get in touch with us today at Werner Law to learn more about wrongful death suits in California.
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