There is nothing as heartbreaking and devastating as losing your loved one in a preventable car accident. Per the Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, you are entitled to hold the at-fault person accountable through a wrongful death lawsuit. However, time is of the essence, or you might lose the right to recover compensation. Consequently, it would help if you spoke with the experienced personal injury attorneys at the Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney immediately. Our legal team focuses on the essential things you should know about the wrongful death statute of limitations in the section below.
What is Wrongful Death?
A wrongful death lawsuit arises when an individual dies due to negligence and an unlawful act of an entity or another person. It's a civil lawsuit filed to the court by the deceased's survivors or representatives of the decedent's estate. Assuming your claim is successful, accountability is expressed in terms of damages that the court orders the responsible person to pay you.
The difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide charge is that the latter is filed by the prosecutor and carries penalties like incarceration, fines, and probation. The burden of proof is more stringent in a criminal case than in a wrongful death claim. In a civil case, you have to prove the defendant acted negligently. On the other hand, the prosecutor must prove the defendant's guilt beyond any reasonable doubt in a criminal case. You can file a wrongful death lawsuit, even if a criminal case is still proceeding.
Who Can File Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Only specific people can bring a wrongful death claim in Los Angeles. Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 permits the following to take legal action:
The decedent's spouse
The decedent's domestic parent
The deceased's surviving children
If there is no surviving person in the deceased line of descent, the claim could be filed by any person entitled to the deceased property per intestate succession laws. It can be the decedent's parents or siblings, depending on who is living during the deceased's demise.
Also, the following can file a wrongful death suit as long as they can prove that they were financially dependent on the deceased:
The decedent's parent
The decedent's stepchildren
The deceased putative spouse and the children of their putative spouse
How to Prove Wrongful Death
If your loved one has died due to another person's conduct, you might want to go to court and demand the at-fault person to be held responsible for your loss. However, recovering the damages you deserve is not easy. You should follow strict procedures and meet the legal burden of proof.
You should prove the demise happened due to somebody else's wrongful conduct or neglect. Additionally, you should have adequate proof to satisfy the necessary burden of proof. The burden of proof is the evidence you should present to persuade the court that the wrongful death occurred. You don't have to establish the wrongful death beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, you should prove it's more than fifty-one percent likely that the demise was wrongful (preponderance of the evidence).
While the damages in wrongful death cases are different from those awarded in standard personal injury cases, the case elements are the same. The elements include:
The defendant owed your loved one a duty of care.
The defendant breached the duty of care.
The breach resulted in the death of your loved one (causation).
You suffered damages due to the victim's death.
Proving Duty of Care
For the responsible party to be accountable for negligence, they should have owed the deceased a duty of care. Although the definition of the term "duty of care" varies with case circumstances, it's essentially the responsibility to act in a manner that keeps other people safe or refrain from doing something that could injure somebody else.
For instance, if you are claiming that the responsible person was operating their vehicle recklessly when they killed your loved one, you can argue that the alleged defendant owed the deceased a duty of care to drive as a prudent and reasonable individual in similar circumstances would.
In wrongful death lawsuits, the judge determines if the responsible party owed the deceased the duty of care. The judge will put factors such as into consideration:
The public policy impact of finding duty in similar claims
How foreseeable or predictable the injury was
How sure the harm happened
The relationship between the harm and the defendant's conduct
The moral blame of the defendant
Establishing a Breach of Duty
If the duty of care exists, you should prove that the liable person breached the duty. Referring to the previous example, you could prove that the negligent person wasn't focusing on the road when they hit the deceased. Failing to focus on the road isn't something a prudent motorist could do, and acting so violated the duty of care. It would help if you persuaded the jury that your side of the circumstances is more than fifty percent true.
The next element of the case is proving the breach of the duty of care harmed the deceased. Using the previous example, you should establish that the defendant's vehicle hit your loved one and not another car. However, if another motor vehicle had struck and seriously injured the deceased before the responsible person's vehicle was involved in the collision, the jury won't find that the responsible person's breach of duty contributed to or caused the harm. Depending on case facts, causation issues are complicated.
You should prove the deceased suffered damages. In wrongful death claims, the injured individuals' death is presumed to be the apparent damage.
Damages Awarded in Wrongful Death Claims
As previously noted, wrongful death damages are tailored to compensate you for the loss of support you reasonably expected to receive from the decedent if they had lived. The compensatory damages include non-economic and economic losses.
The period which the damages are recoverable is the shorter of:
The plaintiff's life expectancy during the wrongful conduct, or
The decedent's life expectancy during the wrongful conduct
Life expectancy is a question of fact for the court, considering factors such as occupation, lifestyle, and general health.
Typical economic damages awarded include the following:
Financial support the decedent could have contributed to their family if they were alive
Loss of benefits and gifts you expected to receive from the decedent
Burial and funeral expenses
Household services' value the deceased could have offered
You can be awarded compensation for the loss of the decedent's:
Companionship and society
Guidance and training
There isn't an exact figure when determining the non-economic damages amount in Los Angeles. The jury will award any compensation amount as long as it is practical founded common sense and evidence presented.
Additionally, wrongful death cases do not include compensation for sorrow, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and grief originating from your loved one's demise.
Can You Receive Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are awarded in addition to compensatory damages. Also known as exemplary damages, they are designed to punish the defendant whose conduct was fraudulent, egregious, too reckless, intentional, and malicious.
Punitive damages are not available in wrongful death claims. The exemption is if your loved one was killed due to felony homicide, in which the negligent person has been found guilty.
However, exemplary damages are available through a survival action on the decedent's estate.
Can You File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Even if the Deceased was not Employed During their Demise?
Yes. Even when your relative didn't have a source of income to recover damages for, you could bring a claim for other damages like:
Loss of parental support and guidance
Loss of companionship
Wrongful Death of Child
When an adult individual dies because of another person's negligence, the surviving family members' financial loss is easy to quantify. For example, when a parent dies, the children might seek compensation for their father's guidance and income. However, when your child dies, your recovery is restricted to your monetary loss that is generally small.
The court will determine the factors below in a wrongful death claim involving a child:
The age, habits, work expectancy, and life expectancy of the child
The child's earning potential
Your relationship with the child
Your health and age
The younger your child is, the more challenging it could be to pin down your total compensation amount. And if you are bringing a case for your teenager's death, it can be easier to predict what your child's life expectancy and potential would have been founded on their work habit in school and overall health records.
Wrongful Death of a Senior Citizen
The demise of an aged individual has limitations when it comes to financial recovery. For example, the court will assume that if your loved one was past their retirement age, they do not have substantial earning capacity. Moreover, it is believed that the decedent's children are adults and do not require significant support and guidance from the parent.
However, that doesn't mean your wrongful death case will be unsuccessful. Consulting with a skilled wrongful death attorney can assist you in determining whether you have a valid claim.
How Long Will it Take for Your Wrongful Death Case to Close?
There is no definite answer. The duration varies with every case's specifics. While some cases settle within one year, others take years or proceed to trial if a settlement is not reached. You should be prepared for any of the options when filing your claim.
Understanding the Difference Between Wrongful Death and Survival Action
By now, you know that when an individual dies because of a personal injury, their estate can file a wrongful death claim. You might also have heard of a survival action case. What is their difference?
The law governs both survival action and wrongful death cases. In other words, they exist because the state of California passed laws that permit the claims. Before the laws are enforced, when an individual dies, the personal injury claim dies with them, and their estate cannot file a personal injury claim.
There are two main differences between the laws.
First, wrongful death law allows the estate to file a case and sets forth the procedure for filing a wrongful death claim. Without the law, you can't bring a wrongful death case.
Secondly, survival action law and wrongful death law authorize different damages awarded to the deceased's estate.
In other words, wrongful death law allows the deceased's estate to recover compensation for the wrongful death. On the other hand, survival action law enables the estate to receive damages which the decedent would have received if they had recovered.
What is the Statute of Limitations?
The phrase "statute of limitations" refers to the procedural rule that requires claims to be filed within a given timeframe. If your case isn't brought by this deadline, the court will dismiss the case, and you lose the right to compensation. Consequently, it is essential to seek legal assistance if you are considering filing a wrongful death claim.
The purpose of a statute of limitations is to protect the defendant and facilitate a settlement to wrongful death cases within a reasonable amount of time. The rationale behind imposing the timeframe is that a plaintiff with a valid case will pursue the claim with diligence. Also, a defendant could lose substantial evidence to disprove a false claim after a long time.
Under Section 335.1 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death case is two (2) years. The time frame starts running immediately when your loved one dies. For instance, if a person dies immediately after a car collision, you have two years to bring legal action from the car accident's date. On the contrary, if the accident causes a person to paralyzed for eight months before dying, the statute of limitations begins running after the alleged victim's death, not the accident's date.
Are There Exemptions to the Statute of Limitations on Wrongful Death Claims?
While the primary statute of limitations for wrongful death cases is two years, there are exemptions to the timeframe. Depending on the nature of the lawsuit, an exception might give you more time to bring the claim. Also, the exemptions could reduce the time you have to bring legal action.
The statute of limitations could be tolled if you did not reasonably find out the death. It starts to accrue after the cause of demise is ascertained, usually after investigation or a postmortem autopsy. The presiding judge determines the exact duration that is extended. If the discovery rule applies, the timeframe will be two (2) years from when the cause of death is determined.
The Claimant Has a Mental Condition or Disability
Another exemption is if the affected person has a mental disease or disability and the at-fault party acted with criminal intent or fraudulently. Persons with mental illness are regarded as a vulnerable population. As a result, they are subject to various standards, such as the fact that they might be incompetent to bring a claim. If the claimant has this condition during the wrongful death but undergoes treatment to become competent in court, the timeframe is extended, and they might then bring legal action.
A Public Entity is At-fault
As previously mentioned, associations, government entities, or individuals can cause wrongful death. Examples of when a public agency is responsible for a wrongful death claim include:
A car accident with a government-owned motor vehicle
Hazardous road conditions
If a government employee or entity caused your loved one's death, it is essential to note the difference in the statute of limitations. Time is of the essence when it comes to claims involving the government, whether state, local, or federal. Under California Government Code Section 911.2, you should file your claim within one hundred and eighty days or six (6) months from when the victim died.
To bring your case, you should use a claim form from the responsible government authority. Once the case is brought, the agency will accept your claim and compensate you or reject the claim. If the case is denied, you should bring a lawsuit, and you'll also have a time limit.
Claims involving the government are complicated and could be navigated if you engage an experienced and knowledgeable attorney.
A Minor Child is Taking Legal Action For their Parent's Demise
There is a unique timeframe when a minor child is bringing legal action for their parent's death. In this case, the minor should file a wrongful death suit within two (2) years from their eighteenth birthday.
Assume a person dies immediately in a car accident. Their twelve-year-old son survives the individual. In this case, the son doesn't have to sue for the parent's death before turning fourteen. Instead, he has until he is twenty to file his claim.
Why You Should Hire a Competent Lawyer Before the Statute of Limitations Expires
Most people hate making decisions on whether to engage an attorney or file a wrongful death case and see the statute of limitations as giving them time to make the stressful choices later. However, because you've time doesn't mean you should file a lawsuit or hire your lawyer when the timeframe is about to pass.
Here are ways that hiring a lawyer late could result in challenges in your claim:
Increase the likelihood of mistakes being made in your case. For instance, if the defendant was acting in the line of duty during the car accident, it might make their boss accountable for the death. Nevertheless, if the fact is uncovered during investigations before the timeframe elapses, the responsible party won't be included in your case. Consulting with an attorney immediately after the death or accident permits the investigation, making sure all defendants are included in your suit.
Essential evidence won't be preserved and gathered for use in a court of law. For instance, following an accident, it is vital to take photos of skid marks. If you fail to engage a lawyer promptly, the skid marks could be washed away before being captured during the investigations.
There is a possibility that the testimony of witnesses will be lost. A witness to the car accident that caused your loved one's death might forget what took place, die, or relocate. When this occurs, the evidence is lost. Since you have the burden of proof, it will hurt your case.
Most law firms don't accept wrongful death claims when the statute of limitations is about to elapse. It is because it doesn't allow the firm enough time to analyze and investigate your case. That means you won't have the choice of competent lawyers and might hire an attorney who is willing to take the risk of making a mistake and deliver a dissatisfactory outcome in the case.
Do You Need a Skilled Attorney?
A skilled lawyer will make sure that every legal intricacy is taken care of. A legal expert can simplify what would seem like an overwhelming experience. The lawyer will ensure the claim is brought timely and paperwork completed.
On top of handling the responsible party, they will deal with the insurance providers. Your attorney should be able to guide you to reach a fair settlement after considering your losses.
Evidence is essential when it comes to building your case. It could be:
Opinions of experts
Collecting adequate evidence helps your attorney understand the truth behind the wrongful death.
Find Los Angeles Wrongful Death Attorney Near Me
When a loved one succumbs to an accident caused by a negligent person, government, or business, you can file a wrongful death claim to recover compensation. The lawsuit will offer you financial security and exact justice to the at-fault party. However, you should comply with the statute of limitations. If you fail to bring within the timeframe, you might lose the right to compensation. You should consult with an experienced attorney like the Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney immediately after your loved one's death. We can work to ensure the case is filed timely and correctly. For a free case review, call us now at 424-237-3600.