Of all the outcomes resulting from an accident, and particularly a personal injury accident, it goes without saying that death is the most extreme and most devastating.
A wrongful death may occur in a personal injury accident several months after the accident itself, and even after lifesaving treatment has been administered.
The area of wrongful death litigation is extremely complex and filled with many legal grey areas and conditions that require an expert to navigate — all at a time when you need simplicity and straightforward advice like no other time in your life. That’s why we at Scranton Law Firm always endeavor to keep our clients as informed as they would like, so you always know where you stand without being overwhelmed. Join us in taking a closer look at the facts surrounding wrongful death cases.
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What Is Wrongful Death?
In legal terms, wrongful death describes a person’s loss of life due to the wrongful or negligent acts of another party. This may encompass something that the other party did or failed to do, leading to the untimely death of the victim. The root of this action or inaction typically falls under either negligence or an intentional act. A wrongful death case can usually be brought by the decedent’s close family or a representative of their estate, and aims to achieve a settlement to cover death-related expenses as well as the financial and emotional costs of losing a partner or family member.
A wrongful death case is brought against a person or entity responsible for the decedent’s passing either by directly causing death, causing injuries that later resulted in death, or even causing emotional distress that eventually resulted in death. Some cases of wrongful death are more clear-cut than others, such as a reckless driver hitting a pedestrian on a sidewalk. Others cases can be much more complex.
As the cause of most wrongful death cases is either negligence or an intentional act, the lines between the two can be quite unclear. Let’s consider both in the context of wrongful death cases.
The majority of wrongful death cases are rooted in some form of negligence. In the most basic of terms, negligence is action or lack of action that breaches a duty of care in some way. For example, motorists have a duty to operate their vehicle in a reasonable manner that does not cause damage or harm to others who use the road, even pedestrians and cyclists. Any failure to operate a vehicle in a reasonably safe manner is a breach of one‘s duty of care towards others, and amounts to negligence.
Here are some examples of negligence that may result in a wrongful death lawsuit:
1. Medical malpractice
If a medical professional fails to perform their medical duties to the expected and accepted standard of care, which results in the death of their patient, this constitutes a wrongful death. This may entail using outdated medical practices, refusing to take a medical issue seriously, or even refusing treatment entirely.An example: A patient presents with a severe headache and double vision, and insists that something is seriously wrong. However, the medical practitioner refuses to perform any further testing and sends the patient away with some painkillers to help with the headache. The patient returns home and loses consciousness, eventually succumbing to a fatal brain aneurysm. In this case, the doctor had a legal responsibility to rule out any serious cause of the severe headache and double vision. It was not medically reasonable to refuse further testing, and this decision directly led to the patient’s loss of life.
2. Workplace negligence
Each employer has a duty of care to ensure the safety of their staff and visitors. This includes providing appropriate protective equipment as well as a premises free of dangerous conditions which may even include warning signs to indicate dangerous substances. OSHA guidelines must be upheld at all times and employers must regularly check their health and safety standards to ensure a safe environment for all people working under their direction.
An example: A worker is asked to use a chemical as part of their daily work. He is not informed of the potential risks of handling the chemical and is provided with insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). As a direct result of exposure to this chemical, the worker suffers a medical emergency and dies.
Here, the employer failed to uphold their legal duty to protect the employee from hazards during their work. Had the worker been provided the correct personal protective equipment, the chemical exposure to the chemical would not have been fatal.
3. Product safety
There are many safety checks that a manufacturer must go through to prove that their product is safe enough to enter the market. However, this system is not perfect and corners are often cut to save time and money, ensuring a faster rollout or higher profits
An example: A private individual purchases a heavy-duty gardening tool for home use. During use, a key part of the tool loosens due to the vibrations of the motor. This loose component then injures the user, who dies from blood loss before reaching the hospital.
As the user did not misuse the product in any way, the company is responsible for putting a dangerous product on the market, and can therefore be responsible for the wrongful death through negligence under product liability law.
4. Road accidents
Just as road accidents are a major source of personal injury cases, they are also common causes of wrongful death. In most cases, the cause of a road accident is pretty clear-cut. However, some incidents may involve several parties and several different acts of negligence. In such complex cases, there may be multiple defendants and a complicated case to establish who is comparatively to blame for the wrongful death in question.
An example: A victim is hit by a drunk driver that swerved into their car. The victim is taken to hospital in an ambulance but later dies of their injuries.
It is also possible that a road accident involves negligence on the part of persons or entities other than the motorist directly involved. For example, faulty brakes could indicate a product safety issue, whereby the manufacturer can be held responsible under product liability law as discussed above. Many car accidents that are serious enough to result in a wrongful death involve more than one at-fault party, so these cases can become fairly complex.
5. Municipal negligence
There are some negligence-based wrongful death cases where the at-fault party is actually a public entity, such as a city or a local transport authority. This may happen if a road accident is deemed to have been caused not by another driver but the condition of the roadway itself.
An example: Our victim is safely driving along the roadway when a car swerves into their path from the other direction. They are killed on impact. The other driver was also driving perfectly safely and was obeying all applicable laws and upholding their duty of care towards other motorists. However, the condition of the road was so bad that it caused the other party’s vehicle to veer off course and into the path of oncoming traffic, resulting in their injury and the death of our victim through no fault of either driver. It later transpires that the municipal authority had been aware of the condition of the road for quite some time but failed to conduct adequate repairs.
In this case, the decedent’s loved ones can bring a wrongful death case against the municipal authority responsible for maintaining the roadway. The other injured driver can likewise pursue their own personal injury case.
In roadway-related traffic incidents, it must proven that the roadway was in a dangerous condition and that the public entity knew of this condition, or reasonably should have through the exercise of due care. It is the duty of public entity providing roadways to the public to ensure that they are in a safe, usable condition and don not put a foreseeable user at risk.
Where does comparative negligence come in?
As California is a comparative negligence state, it‘s possible to split the responsibility for a wrongful among multiple parties, including even the decedent. This means that a court could consider the deceased victim to be at least partially responsible for their own death.
An example: Our decedent is hit by a negligent truck driver, who did not check that the lane was clear before merging. The impact may possibly have been avoided if the decedent had not been distracted by texting on their cellphone and therefore not paying full attention to the road.
A court may rule that the decedent could have prevented the collision if they had noticed the hazard in time to take evasive action, although the other driver is at fault for causing the hazard in the first place. Therefore, our victim may be assigned a percentage of the fault for their contribution posthumously. The deceased party’s family can still bring a wrongful death case against the other driver but any recovery will be reduced by the level of comparative fault. If the deceased is found to be 30% at fault, they will only be able to recover 70% of any award.
The other main root of wrongful death cases is intent. This is a slightly more complex issue, as criminal charges may also be present. For instance, the defendant may be charged for murder by the state while the decedent’s surviving family brings a wrongful death suit against the same defendant to cover damages related to the loss of a family member.
Here are some examples:
1. Assault and battery
In this case, the person that committed the assault may not have intended to kill the victim but definitely intended to do harm.
An example: Our victim was attacked outside a bar after a disagreement earlier in the evening. They were struck multiple times and left on the ground as the assailants fled the scene. Due to a catastrophic brain injury suffered during the attack, the decedent was kept on life support for two weeks before being declared legally dead.
Here, the attackers did not intend to kill the victim but their violent actions resulted directly in the decedent’s death.
2. Murder or manslaughter
The difference between murder and manslaughter can be cause for much confusion, particularly when differing levels of murder are brought into the picture. However, this does not really matter in wrongful death cases, as the victim’s family simply has to prove that the defendant caused the wrongful death of their loved one through intent or negligence.
An example: A jealous ex-partner kills their former lover. Whether this death constitutes premeditated murder, second-degree murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter is irrelevant for the scope of a wrongful death case. Civil cases do not require evidence to indicate guilt beyond reasonable doubt, rather to simply prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the victim’s death.
Mostly impacting children, the elderly, and vulnerable adults with disabilities; abuse is a complex cause of wrongful death. At its most simple, abuse cases are physical with plenty evidence to accompany them. However, abuse can also manifest itself in bullying behavior and other types of non-violent abuse that, over time, results in a wrongful death.
An example: The staff and other residents at a residential home for children in the care of the state have been singling out and bullying one child for many months. This child takes their own life. Although the criminal case for such a complex matter may be difficult to pursue, the wrongful death case may be much simpler.
This also usually impacts children and senior citizens in vulnerable situations, but can also affect other vulnerable adults. These cases are most typically seen in the home and healthcare settings such as homes for the elderly, young people or people with disabilities.
An example: An elderly resident of a care home is not given adequate medical attention. Their medication is not provided regularly and worsening symptoms are ignored. The facility does not take the resident to the hospital when symptoms become severe, and trhe resident subsequently dies.
Negligence and intent
There are many cases where intent and negligence intertwine.
An example: Our decedent was experiencing difficulty breathing. They asked a relative to call for an ambulance but the relative refused. The decedent died from their condition and it is obvious that medical intervention could have saved their life.
This type of deliberate inaction is hard to categorize. Without a clear explanation from the relative about the refusal to call for medical help, it is nearly impossible to know whether they simply thought the decedent was overreacting or intended to cause physical harm or even death.
No matter whether a wrongful death case was caused by negligence, intent, or a combination of both; there are always damages and expenses that the victim’s family is left to cover. Therefore, seeking compensation for these damages and expenses is usually the key aim of a wrongful death case.
Can I Pursue a Wrongful Death Case if There’s Already a Manslaughter or Murder Case?
You might think that only one case can be brought for one incident. However, it is possible to pursue a case in civil court for damages and expenses, even though a criminal case may be pending in criminal courts.
Damages Covered by Wrongful Death Cases
The point of a wrongful death case is to compensate survivors for the loss they have suffered, rather than to seek justice for the deceased.
These cases can be brought by the deceased person’s loved ones or the executor of their estate. A wrongful death suit aims to seek compensation so that the deceased person’s family does not suffer financially due to their passing. However, plaintiffs may also pursue damages to cover the emotional impact of their loss as well. Some of the damages taht may be recovered in a wrongful death case are:
1. Medical bills
Victims of wrongful death generally incur massive medical bills resulting from life saving procedures that were administered prior to the untimely death of the deceased. As the injuries are most likely extremely severe, the medical interventions required may encompass lengthy surgeries and other invasive, cost-intensive measures. Even a simple ambulance ride can be a cost that many families find overwhelming. This means that the surviving loved ones are left with devastating financial consequences for the wrongdoings of the party responsible for the wrongful death. It is also possible to seek compensation for a surviving family member’s medical bills. If, for example, the surviving children of the deceased require extensive therapy after losing their parent, these expenses may also be included in the settlement.
2. Funeral expenses
Similarly, the deceased person’s surviving family will have to cover unexpected costs for a funeral. These expenses can really hit a family hard at the worst possible time. It is very common for wrongful death cases to include compensation for the costs of a funeral.
3. Loss of future income
Many families rely on the income of the deceased person, particularly if the deceased party was the main breadwinner in the household. Establishing the value of the deceased person’s future income up to the point of retirement is therefore a key component of a wrongful death case. Although a financial settlement can never replace the comfort, support, and companionship of a spouse or other family member, it can help on a practical level to ensure that loved ones are not left struggling for money.
4. Loss of consortium (companionship)
Losing the companionship of a partner is often the heart of any wrongful death case. If, for example, the plaintiff is a surviving spouse, their life will be drastically different after their life partner’s passing. This legal term covers the practical support offered by a living partner as well as emotional support and companionship.
5. Pain and suffering
Aside from losing a treasured companion, the decedent’s surviving loved ones may also seek compensation for pain and suffering of various natures. This can include anything from the emotional trauma of witnessing the deceased’s passing to having to identify the deceased party’s body or any physical disfigurement of the person’s body. Most wrongful death cases will seek a certain level of compensation for the pain and suffering caused by losing a loved one, particularly if there is a high level of trauma or shock involved.
A wrongful death lawsuit could also be coupled with a “survival” cause of action, whereby the victim’s estate sues for compensation for losses suffered by the deceased. This type of case seeks compensation for the personal injuries and resulting damages suffered by the direct victim almost like a regular personal injury lawsuit.
How to Pursue a Wrongful Death Case
If you are considering pursuing a wrongful death claim for the loss of a family member, there are some things you might want to consider.
What is the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims?
Another type of case that can be filed is a survival action. In this type of case, the 2-year period begins from the date of the injury that eventually resulted in the deceased party’s wrongful death or six months from the date of the decedent’s death.
It is essential that you initiate your wrongful death claim within the statute of limitations to avoid your case becoming invalid. Even if you are not certain that you want to take your case all the way, it can be a good idea to at least begin to file the case so you are no longer impacted by the ticking clock of the statute of limitations.
Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit in California?
In the majority of cases, a wrongful death case may only be pursued by the executor of the decedent’s estate or a close family member. However, these parameters may change depending on the individual circumstances. For example, If a wrongful death case is being brought for the death of a parent of a minor, the minor may require a legal guardian to represent them.
In California, there is a hierarchy of heirs that can be applied to any wrongful death case, potentially allowing more distant relatives to pursue wrongful death cases if closer relatives either do not exist or are also deceased. This may mean that parties less emotionally connected to the decedent, such as an estranged parent or child, may be eligible to file a wrongful death suit, whereas a more distant relative, such as a grandparent, may not be eligible regardless of their emotional relationship. If you are unsure whether you would be able to pursue a wrongful death case in California, contact a local firm, such as Scranton Law Firm, to discuss your options.
What kind of lawyer do I need for a wrongful death case?
As this area of law is so complex and California law has so many specificities and unique requirements, hiring a local law firm is essential. Even good-quality national law firms may struggle with complex legal concepts that are standard in California, so it’s always best to look for a well-established firm close to home. Scranton Law Firm is based in California, and our team is able to travel throughout the state to provide you with an in-person consultation and case review. We know our state’s law inside and out, so there’s no need to waste time and money getting to grips with new state laws.
As with any legal case, an experienced attorney can make all the difference. Look for a longstanding law firm with experience in all kinds of personal injury cases, including wrongful death lawsuits. They should have a good online presence with plenty of client reviews and testimonials available. After nearly 50 years in business, Scranton Law Firm has the experience you need to make your case a success. We pride ourselves on our reputation and our good standing in our community.
Most of all, you need a law firm that is client-focused in both its philosophy and its actions. We know that this time in your life is full of stress, grief, and adjustment. That’s why we want to make your wrongful death case as smooth and stress-free as possible. Our team is always willing to explain things to you as much or as little as you like so you can feel in control of the whole process without getting overwhelmed. We are always willing to work around your schedule, your preferences, and your needs.
If you feel ready to make the next step and discuss your options with an experienced local law firm, get in touch with Scranton Law Firm today. We can offer you a free, no-obligation consultation either in person or virtually if you prefer. Get in touch to book your case assessment at your soonest convenience.