The unfortunate and untimely loss of a loved one because of someone’s negligence, or failure to act is a shattering experience that takes a toll on not only your emotions but also a financial one if you relied on the deceased for financial support. Fortunately, California law demands that you walk into court and hold the party responsible for the death. The problem is that filing a claim is not as easy as it seems. There are legal and court procedures and burdens of proof required before the court holds the defendant responsible.
To prove that a car accident caused by the defendant led to the death of the deceased, you need to establish specific legal elements beyond reasonable certainty. Proving these elements is not a piece of cake hence the need for an experienced personal injury attorney. At the Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney, we are ready to begin building your case today.
Understanding Wrongful Death Lawsuits
A wrongful death suit in California arises when an individual or entity’s negligence, recklessness, or unintentional conduct results in the unfortunate and untimely death of a loved one. The person or organization responsible for the death, in this case, is the defendant, while the immediate family members registering the claim are plaintiffs or claimants. The law allows the plaintiff to sue the defendant for the wrongful death.
The lawsuits are civil actions initiated in court directly by the immediate family or estate of the deceased. As per CCP 377.6, if the claim is successful, the fault is expressed in terms of financial damages, the court orders the defendant to reimburse the plaintiff.
Keep in mind that in these cases, the plaintiff carries the burden of proof. It means you have to show that the action or negligence by the other driver was responsible for the car accident that led to the death of the decedent. You will need a proficient and knowledgeable injury attorney to ensure maximum compensation.
This is unlike criminal homicide cases registered in court by the state because, upon conviction of the defendant, the court imposes prison, jail custody, or probation as punishment. You can write a wrongful death suit even as the criminal one proceeds.
Winning a wrongful death case is not only about gathering evidence and building a strong claim. You should know there is something known as statutes of limitations, which is the amount of time the plaintiff has to register a claim. Even if you have a strong case and fail to file a lawsuit within two years after the demise of the deceased, you will lose your right to register one. Thankfully, there are notable exceptions that allow you to file a claim even after a lapse of the time limit. Speak to your attorney and find out if you can still register a lawsuit.
Ensure you share all the details of the vehicle accident that resulted in wrongful death with your attorney. If the driver who caused the accident is a government employee, you will have up to six months to file a claim. If you are a minor who lost a parent in a vehicle accident, the law allows the time limit to be extended to two years after you turn18 years. So, if the accident happened while you were sixteen years, the time limit accrues when you turn 18.
Plaintiffs or Claimants in Wrongful Death Lawsuits
California law requires only a specific category of people to register a claim. These parties include:
- The decedent’s living spouse or disclosed domestic partner
- Decedent’s living children, both adopted and biological
- Decedent’s grandchildren if there are no surviving children
- Any minor who depended on the deceased for half of their financial support
- The deceased’s estate if there are no survivors in the line of descent
Take note that domestic partners, in this case, are persons who were living with the deceased before the unexpected death. Apart from sharing a home with the victim, a registered domestic partner includes all those who had financial ties with the decedent, like sharing insurance plans, leases, or mortgages. Putative spouses or their children also have the right to register a claim.
Different Acts that Constitute Wrongful Death lawsuits
After a car accident causing a loved one’s death, you have many reasons to file a wrongful death claim against the defendant. These reasons include:
- Reckless driving or racing
- Failure to give way to oncoming traffic
- Not checking blind spots when changing lanes
- Failure to check the road for oncoming vehicles when entering an intersection
- Not stopping at a stop sign
- Making a left turn in front of an approaching vehicle
- Distracted driving
- Truck or big rig drivers driving for long hours without proper rest
- Commercial drivers impaired by drugs meant to keep the awake
- Failure by bus drivers to stop at a railroad crossing
- Bus drivers’ loss of control over the vehicle
The law requires that you sue the defendant if they engaged in any of the above acts causing the victim’s death. The more evidence you present showing the defendant was culpable, the higher the damages. If, in this case, the driver who caused a car crash that was the cause of death of a loved one was not only driving under the influence but also speeding or driving recklessly, the more monetary damages the court will award.
Note that just because someone’s negligence caused the vehicle accident will not always be apparent if the defendant directly caused the death. For this reason, you will need a trained eye like the Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney to make the cause of the accident or reason for the claim clear to the court.
Elements of a Wrongful Death Claim, a Plaintiff Must Establish
After registering a wrongful death claim, you should prove all the elements of the lawsuit before compensation. The burden of proof, in this case, is called preponderance of the evidence because you only need to show the defendant was responsible for a particular percentage of the car accident. The elements that you must prove are:
- The defendant owed the victims a particular duty of care
- The defendant breached this duty by acting negligently
- The negligence was the cause of the vehicle accident that led to the death of the victim
- The demise led to your losses and those of other claimants
Note that the duty of care varies with the cause of the vehicle accident. For instance, a bus driver must operate the auto with reasonable care for the public’s safety, depending on road and weather conditions. When the driver engages in behavior like speeding, reckless driving, or disregard of traffic laws, this is evidence of a breach of duty.
In typical criminal proceedings, to earn a conviction, the prosecutor must prove that negligence was the causative factor to achieve sentencing. However, in civil proceedings or courts, the claimant’s attorney must prove that the defendant exhibited a lack of reasonable care where he or she was expected to demonstrate professionalism. Proper care is what is known as the duty of care.
When a defendant engages in action or inaction, a sober or ordinary person would not have engaged in similar circumstances; it is called ordinary negligence. On the other hand, gross negligence is when the defendant fails to exercise any reasonable care whatsoever. It is similar to recklessness, although it’s milder in terms of legal definition. The negligent behavior that falls under negligence law is subject to various interpretations by judges. For this reason, you need an experienced personal injury attorney to prove you didn’t engage in gross negligence.
If the accident was due to a vehicle defect, the vehicle’s manufacturer could be held liable for breaching their duty of ensuring they manufacture quality vehicles and auto parts. The manufacturer could also be accountable if the accident were due to failure to warn the car and part buyers about the product’s unreasonable dangers. Some of the standard car defects that result in fatal vehicle collisions include:
- Faulty brakes
- Unstable car design
- Explosion or fire hazards
- Steering problems
Take note that some of these defects are only apparent after the crash. After a vehicle accident, especially one that doesn’t involve other vehicles, you should reach out to an experienced car accident attorney to investigate the car history and determine if potential defaults in the vehicle caused or contributed to the crash.
Another cause of road accidents is hazardous or poor road conditions. If the cause of the vehicle accident that ended the life of the deceased was poor road conditions, you should sue the agency or organization in charge of designing or maintaining the road. The problem of suing entities overseeing road maintenance is that the majority are government-owned or operated. It means you will undergo special court rules and guidelines because some government agencies enjoy sovereign immunity that protects them from lawsuits unless it consents to the suing.
One of the special rules is reducing the statute of limitations for wrongful death from 24 to 6 months. So, make sure you reach out to your attorney immediately to begin preparations for a claim before the lapse of the six months time limit. The typical road hazardous that should give you a reason to sue the government for a fatal car accident include:
- Faulty traffic signs and lights
- Sudden change in road surfaces
- Poor design of intersections
- Missing barriers and guardrails
- Unsafe construction areas on the road
- Inferior road designs
- Wheel ruts
Companies or organizations charged with designing or maintaining roads have a duty of ensuring highways are safe for use. Failure to do so is a breach of duty of care. Therefore, if a fatal accident was because of poor road design or maintenance, the person in charge of the road should be held liable for wrongful death.
It’s essential to build a wrongful death lawsuit around the behavior or misconduct of the defendant. And although negligence is the main cause of fatal vehicle accidents, it will not be enough to win you compensation if you don’t demonstrate that the misconduct contributed to the death.
Proving Intentional Harm
Not all wrongful death claims stem from negligence. Some are due to intentional acts by the defendant. The elements that you must prove are:
- The defendant had plans or purpose of committing the act
- The defendant made non-consensual contact with the deceased by hitting them with a car.
- The non-consensual contact resulted in fatal injuries
If you lost a loved one in a vehicle accident caused intentionally by the defendant, you can pursue criminal charges in court. However, the process is separate from that of a wrongful death suit. Thankfully, with an experienced personal injury attorney, you could rely on the criminal case in court to build a more substantial wrongful death lawsuit.
Proving that intentional actions by the defendant caused the accident isn’t a walk in the park. You will need to conduct an independent investigation to establish the defendant’s behavior or misconduct at the time of the car accident. If death is unclear, you can run an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Experts and eyewitnesses accounts about the fatal accident will demonstrate a violation of legal obligation at the time of death.
Keep in mind that intentional acts are different from recklessness. You can prove recklessness caused a loved one’s death if you can demonstrate the actions or inactions will increase the risk of harm. Additionally, the defendant must have shown a lack of caution in the fashion they were acting and ignored the possible dangers of the behavior.
When proving intentional harm resulted in the wrongful death, your injury attorney must prove the defendant engaged in the behavior with full knowledge that it would harm others. If the defendant’s actions that caused the fatal accident were intentional, a prosecutor could even file involuntary murder charges or vehicular manslaughter charges. However, the civil and criminal cases are separate proceedings, although they complement each other.
Determining the Value of Damages
After establishing the defendant’s negligence or intentional acts were the cause of the demise, the next thing is to prove the damages incurred due to the death and their value. This step is critical because it determines if you get fair and full compensation for the deceased’s death. Valuing a wrongful death claim isn’t easy because there is no definite way of determining the damages. The decision about damages depends on previous cases and the decision by the judge or jury.
The general rule of the thumb in California is that every claimant in a wrongful death is entitled to recover both special and general damages stemming from the deceased’s demise. Special or economic damages include an award of all financial support the dead could have provided to the children, spouse, domestic partners, and other people that depended on him or her for financial aid, were it not for the death. The damages also include reimbursement for funeral services and burial expenses.
Non-economic or general damages, on the other hand, include loss of companionship, affection, intimate relations, love, and moral support.
Valuing Economic Damages
The main element of economic damages is the loss of financial or monetary aid, which the deceased would have continued to provide were it not for the death. The compensation includes the current value of financial support; the victim would have contributed to the family for the duration of life expectancy.
Similarly, a claimant is eligible for financial loss stemming from the services the deceased would have otherwise provided. The services the deceased was providing and would have continued to provide were it not for the death include:
- Home repairs and maintenance
- Vehicle maintenance
Remember, you can also include the deceased’s gift you were likely to receive in the list of economic damages. Again, if the victim was alive, you could have saved money, time, and effort. However, since this is no longer possible, you can pursue compensation for the amount you would pay someone to perform the duties the deceased used to perform.
When building your case, you need to understand that the judge or jury considers many factors to establish the amount of support you could have enjoyed from the deceased, were it not for the death. These facts include:
- The age of the deceased and each descendant at the time of demise
- The health of the dead car accident victim and each descendant right before the death
- The relevant life expectancies of the decedent and each descendant
- Whether the deceased was affectionate, kind, or otherwise
- The personality or mood of the deceased to contribute financially to support the heirs
When deciding the amount to award, the trier of facts considers your earning capabilities, not just the actual earnings. They will also consider your social security or retirement pension income. Claimants are eligible for all financial losses they have endured, which would have enhanced their quality of life or helped them live comfortably with the current life changes.
In contrast, non-economic, also called general damages, enable victims to get reimbursement for damages without any dollar value that the plaintiffs suffered. Some of these damages include loss of love, companionship, training, advice, society, solace, moral support, and affection. Remember that you cannot recover damages for the deceased’s pain and suffering, for their sorrow, poverty, grief, or wealth.
Part of building your wrongful death case involves calculating the damages that you are entitled to. Therefore, you need a profound personal injury attorney with experience handling these cases. The attorney will consider all the economic and non-economic damages suffered by the plaintiff because of a loved one’s death to ensure the compensation is enough to cover all the losses you have sustained, either monetary or non-monetary.
Possible Legal Defenses to Wrongful Death Claim
At the Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney, we build your wrongful death case around the defendant’s misconduct. If maximum damages are awarded to the plaintiff, the defendant will incur hefty costs hence retaining an injury attorney’s services. If the attorney represents a defendant, you should expect them to contest the claim using various defenses.
The first defense the defendant’s attorney will mount is arguing that their client didn’t owe you as a claimant, any duty of care. The attorney will say that the defendant didn’t have any legal responsibility towards the deceased to ensure they don’t suffer any harm. Thankfully, your attorney can counter the argument by asserting that every individual has a legal obligation not to harm others. If the defendant is a professional driver, you can argue that they have a specific duty to drive safely and ensure the public’s safety
Similarly, the defendant may mount the defense of comparative negligence rule. Under this policy, if the claimant is partly responsible for the fatal accident, the damages awarded will reduce by the percentage of negligence to blame on them. It means that the defendant can provide evidence proving that somehow the deceased was responsible for their death, resulting in a reduction of damages. Your attorney will need the police report on the accident or conduct a separate investigation. Doing so will eliminate or reduce the proportionate of blame you are accountable for in the accident, ensuring maximum compensation.
Another argument that the defendant can mount is claiming the deceased was aware of their conduct risks. The legal terminology for this is the assumption of risk. Even if the deceased was involved in the risky behavior that led to the accident, the defendant still has a legal responsibility towards them. If the defendant misrepresented the risks, the claimants would be owed damages for a loved one’s wrongful death.
Find a Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney Near Me
California injury laws provide several ways of holding a defendant liable for a car accident that causes a loved one’s death. Whether it’s an individual or an organization, you have the right to sue them for damages. And although the money will not bring the deceased back to life, it will ease the grief and shield you from loss of earnings due to the loss. Let the Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney help you build your case today. Get in touch with us by calling 424-237-3600 for a free consultation.