A Primer On California Wrongful Death Lawsuits

For both clients and personal injury lawyers in California, as elsewhere, there are few types of cases as emotionally taxing and stressful as wrongful death lawsuits. In this primer on California wrongful death lawsuits, you will get the basic legal information you need to understand the process in the Golden State. However, you should never take any advice from an article or book as gospel, and should always consult an experienced attorney if you are considering a wrongful death action.

Wrongful death cases have made big headlines in the past, such as when Ron Goldman’s and Nicole (Brown) Simpson’s families sued O.J. Simpson after he was acquitted in his criminal trial. This has led some people to conclude that wrongful death cases are routinely filed if criminal trials for murder end in acquittals, which is far from being the case. In fact, the kind of wrongful death civil trial that took place in Simpson’s case is greatly outnumbered by the other kinds of cases that are filed in California, day in and day out.

Many types of cases

Accidents can lead to wrongful death cases just as often as deliberate, destructive actions do, perhaps more. There are many things that can precipitate a wrongful death case in California, including:

-family members being killed in a vehicular accident (car, motorcycle, bicycle) in which they were not at fault;

-a loved one dying as the result of excessive force used by police or private security agents;

-deaths attributable to unsafe conditions on public or private property, such as missing warning signs or defective roads;

-deficient construction work on private buildings or in public places;

-the negligence of a doctor that results in death; and

-deaths caused by a defective product, incompetent repair, substandard parts or poor work procedures.

Time constraints

The current Statute of Limitations in California holds that a wrongful death lawsuit be filed within two years of the date of the accident, action or incident that caused the death. Under CCP 335.1, if you do not file in this time frame you lose your right to sue at any future time. Because of certain exceptions and the changing nature of case law, you should always consult an experience personal injury lawyer when you are contemplating a wrongful death lawsuit. Some of the exceptions have to do with medical care (physician negligence, health care provider malfeasance), as well as with building codes and construction defects. Make sure you get the right advice about your particular situation.

Generally speaking, if you intend to sue a government entity, you must first file a claim with that department or agency within six months of the incident date. If the claim is rejected then you have another six months to file your lawsuit. Again, there are always exceptions and technicalities to consider, so do not make any decision yourself about whether a suit can or cannot be filed. Consult an expert attorney.

Parties with standing

The term standing is common in the law, and simply means that someone has a legal basis on which to make a claim. Wrongful death suits can be brought by a number of people who have that standing, or by the victim’s personal representative. Parties with standing include:

– the victim’s surviving spouse or domestic partner, children and the offspring of deceased children;

– in the event there are no children, the persons (who can be surviving spouses or domestic partners) legally entitled to the victim’s property through what is called intestate succession (when someone dies without a will);

– whether or not covered by preceding categories, anyone who is/was dependent on the victim, meaning the putative spouse, children of that spouse, parents or stepchildren (a putative spouse is a surviving spouse of a void or voidable marriage who believed, in good faith, that the marriage was valid, in the court’s judgment); and

– minors, if they lived for the previous six months in the victim’s household and were dependent on the victim for half or more of their support.

There may be others who have standing to sue for wrongful death, but again, the only way to proceed is to get the help of an experienced personal injury lawyer. This is a very complex area of the law and it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for lay people to learn enough in a short period of time to do themselves much good.


The compensation awarded in a successful wrongful death suit is based on the financial support that the victim would have contributed to the family during either the victim’s life expectancy or that of the person who brings suit, whichever is less. There are also funeral and burial costs, a reasonable value assigned to the household services the victim would have contributed and so on. In addition, compensatable losses include the loss of love, care, comfort, assistance, personal safety and other things, both tangible and intangible, that the victim provided.

Bottom line

A wrongful death suit is a very complicated matter and should not be undertaken lightly, and certainly not without expert counsel. Naturally you want to educate yourself about the law, but do not make the mistake of thinking you can handle anything like this yourself. Get hold of a qualified, experienced and reputable personal injury lawyer.

At the Law Offices of Mickey Fine Law Firm in Manhattan Beach, California, we are los angeles personal injury lawyers that help clients who have been seriously injured due to the negligence of another party, and clients who have lost a family member in a tragic accident. We also help people whose insurance companies are denying or delaying payment of a legitimate claim.

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