Wrongful death occurs when someone’s neglect or wrongful act causes another person’s death, according to the California Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60. As in a personal injury case, it will be the claimant’s responsibility to prove wrongful death through a preponderance of evidence in a civil claim. Proving wrongful death in California will take presenting evidence to fulfill the main elements of a claim.
The Death of a Loved One
The first element to prove is that someone did, in fact, die in the accident in question. If the individual’s injuries were not fatal, he or she may have grounds to file a personal injury claim instead of the family filing for wrongful death. One cannot file a wrongful death claim if the victim is still alive, even if that person is in a comatose state or suffering a permanent disability. A personal injury lawsuit may be a more appropriate cause of action in these cases. This is typically the easiest element to prove (using a death certificate), but it is still crucial.
Permission to File a Claim
Only certain parties have the right to file wrongful death lawsuits in the state of California. A claimant must show the courts that he or she has this right based on the relationship the claimant had with the deceased person, or decedent. A surviving spouse, domestic partner, or child may bring a wrongful death claim in California.
If these parties do not exist, the right will pass to anyone the law may entitle to the property of the deceased person. The filing party must also bring the lawsuit within the statute of limitations. Claimants have two years from the date of death to file in California.
Breach of Duty of Care
A duty of care is a legal responsibility someone has to another person according to the circumstances. In a medical setting, for example, a physician will owe a patient a duty to provide adequate and reasonable care during the course of treatment. Someone’s specific duties of care will depend on the situation and the relationship he or she has to the plaintiff. To win a wrongful death claim, the claimant must prove that a duty of care existed between the decedent and the defendant and that the defendant breached this duty of care.
A breach of duty can be any act or omission that makes the defendant fail to exercise a reasonable degree of care. Any act of negligence, carelessness, recklessness, or intent to harm could constitute a breach of duty. It is the claimant’s responsibility to show evidence that the at-fault party broke some duty of care to the victim, such as by driving drunk or operating without the patient’s informed consent. Breach of duty is often the most difficult element to prove in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Causation and Damages
Once the claimant establishes that the defendant breached a duty of care and that someone died, he or she must show a causal link between these two events. The defendant’s negligence must be the proximate cause of the fatal injuries in question. If, for example, a patient died from terminal cancer after inadequate care from a physician, the claimant will have to prove that the death stemmed from the lack of proper care and not cancer itself.
Finally, the claimant will need to show that the family suffered real, specific damages because of the defendant’s actions. Compensable damages can include the death of the family member itself, as well as related losses such as mental anguish, loss of consortium, and reasonable funeral and burial expenses. They can also include the victim’s losses, such as the cost of medical care or pain and suffering up to the date of death.