Damages available in a California wrongful death lawsuit
What kind of compensation can you expect from a wrongful death lawsuit in California?
Before wrongful death laws were adopted, a deceased victim of another’s negligence was effectively penalized for dying.
If an injured person had lived, he would have a cause of action for many forms of compensation, including direct costs, lost wages, partial or permanent disabilities, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
A negligent act that ends a person’s life should not also kill their right to fair and reasonable compensation for their family. Their rights should survive.
California wrongful death statute
California’s wrongful death statute essentially provides for the survival of a deceased victim’s causes of action. In any case where someone dies as a result of the negligent or intentional act of another, their personal representative (e.g., executor) or certain surviving relatives can assert the same claims that the deceased could have asserted had they lived.
The statute of limitation for such action is 2 years after the date of death.
To show liability in a wrongful death action, the plaintiff must prove the same elements that apply to a personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiff must prove:
- There was an injury resulting in death,
- The defendant’s act was the proximate cause of the injury or death,
- The defendant breached a duty of care, and
- The allowable damages.
Types of damages for wrongful death lawsuits in California
Like normal personal injury cases, wrongful death damages are economic and non-economic.
Until 2022, California did not allow non-economic damages for wrongful death. That seems inconsistent with policy in favor of the survival of a decedent’s causes of action that is the foundation of the wrongful death law. For that and other reasons, California’s wrongful death statute was amended to allow pain and suffering damages in wrongful death actions.
Generally, damages allowable in a wrongful death action break down into 3 categories: economic, non-economic and punitive. Economic damages are financial damages that are objective and relatively easy to measure. Non-economic and punitive damages are usually intangible and more subjective.
These are tangible damages that can be measured in terms of money. They include:
- Payment of medical bills, funeral and burial costs, and other expenses
- The wages, income and other financial compensation that the deceased would have earned after his injury and before his death
These are intangible damages that are not readily measured monetarily.
- Pain and suffering endured by the deceased before death
- Loss of consortium and the deceased’s companionship, love, care and comfort
- Lost inheritance or the wealth that the decedent would have accumulated had he lived
If the decedent’s death is caused by a willful act, omission or gross negligence, the court or jury might award punitive (exemplary) damages as well as compensatory damages.
These are meant to be a punishment as a deterrent against the defendant or others repeating such behavior. Some states impose a cap on punitive damages. California does not.
How do you prove non-economic damages?
Non-economic damages are proved mostly by witness testimony. But they are also proved by relevant statistics.
For example, suppose the deceased was an otherwise healthy 45-year-old man who was an electrical engineer with a master’s degree in engineering. An attorney needs to prove what he would have earned if he had lived for his normal life expectancy and stayed gainfully employed until the typical retirement age.
An attorney would start with his salary or income at the time of his death. Statistics would show that he should have lived beyond his normal retirement age and would tell what the average income of an experienced electrical engineer would be over the next 20 years until normal retirement age.
That’s just one component of non-economic damages. They can also include compensation for the decedent’s pain and suffering before they died. The measurement of pain and suffering is a common evidentiary challenge in every personal injury case.
Is there a limit on pain and suffering damages in California?
There are no fixed formulas for awarding damages for pain and suffering. However, courts in California try to apply somewhat uniform standards.
California law imposes no statutory cap on non-economic damages for pain and suffering or any other wrongful death damages. Ultimately, a jury will decide how much pain and suffering is endured and determine the value of those damages based on subjective evidence.
California statutory law sets a guideline for all kinds of damages, including pain and suffering. California Civil Code § 3359 provides that “Damages must, in all cases, be reasonable, and where an obligation of any kind appears to create a right to unconscionable and grossly oppressive damages, contrary to substantial justice, no more than reasonable damages can be recovered.”
The judge in a wrongful death case will read those instructions to the jury, who are then supposed to apply that standard to their weighing of all of the evidence presented.
What methods are used to calculate pain and suffering damages in California?
Lawyers often employ 2 methods to guide a jury in awarding pain and suffering damages. Insurance companies sometimes use them for wrongful death settlement purposes.
The 1st method starts with the known economic damages and multiplies it by a number between 1 and 5, depending on the severity of the injury.
In the 2nd method, the jury chooses a per diem rate per day (e.g., $100), depending on the severity of the injury, and this number is multiplied by the number of days the pain and suffering continued. This method is not a meaningful measurement since that period is usually cut short by death.
When to contact a wrongful death attorney
No amount of money can ever compensate for losing someone you love, but it can help ease the financial burdens you face in their absence. If you’ve lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, it’s imperative that you contact an experienced wrongful death attorney to discuss the details surrounding your specific case.
California law sets time limits on which you can file a wrongful death suit, so it’s best to contact an attorney as soon as possible to explore your options.
If you’ve lost a loved one because of someone else’s negligence, contact the experienced wrongful death attorneys at MVP Accident Attorneys. We pride ourselves on helping families throughout California and Texas recover compensation after the death of a loved one, and we’d love to help you too.
Our firm focuses exclusively on personal injury and wrongful death cases, so we understand the laws and can work to get you the compensation you deserve. Contact us today for your free, no-obligation consultation.
Brett S. Sachs graduated from Michigan State University College of Law with Cum Laude Honors. While attending Michigan State, Brett was awarded for his service in the Michigan State University College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, where he represented prisoners of the Michigan Department of Corrections from injustices brought upon them. Learn more.
When You’ve Been Injured
Personal Injury Law