Berkeley Wrongful Death Lawyer
The National Safety Council declared 2016 to be the deadliest year on U.S. roads since 2007. The Council released data indicating that an estimated 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2016, which was a 6 percent increase from 2015, according to Fortune Magazine. It would also be a 14 percent increase in auto accident deaths since 2014, which would be the largest two-year jump in more than 50 years.
When someone dies in an auto accident, the repercussions are severe and far-reaching. There are spouses, sons, daughters, parents, etc. that are immediately affected by a sudden, unexpected death. If you lost a loved one in an accident caused by another party’s negligence, you probably have questions about what to do next. The information below is intended to help clarify the next steps and whether it makes sense to pursue a wrongful death claim against the irresponsible party that caused your loved one’s death.What is a Wrongful Death Claim?
Under the California Civil Code, a wrongful death occurs when someone dies due to the negligent and/or wrongful action of another individual or entity (e.g., corporation). When someone dies as a proximate result of another party’s negligence, it creates a pursuable claim under tort law whereby the survivors of the victim can seek economic and non-economic damages against the at-fault party. This is known as a wrongful death claim.Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Under the California civil code, only specific individuals can file a wrongful death lawsuit. They include the following:
- The spouse of the decedent;
- The domestic partner of the decedent;
- Any children of the decedent;
- If the decedent was not survived by a spouse or children, a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed by anyone entitled to the decedent’s property under California's intestate succession laws.
In most cases, there is a designated individual or representative that files a wrongful death lawsuit in court. In order for multiple people to file a wrongful death lawsuit against a defendant, they need to all be a party to the same case. This means a spouse and a child cannot file two separate wrongful death lawsuits. There can be only one lawsuit. Therefore, if you are not involved in a wrongful death lawsuit that is active and ongoing, you will likely be barred from being named as a claimant.Types of Compensation That Can Be Pursued
The representative of the decedent’s estate is able to pursue economic and non-economic damages through a wrongful death claim. Economic damages constitute those itemizable harms that you can substantiate through invoices. They include medical expenses and lost wages. Non-economic damages include those intangible harms. For example, the loss of companionship and guidance, mental trauma, etc.Punitive Damages Potentially Pursuable
In some instances, there may be a basis for pursuing punitive damages. These are damages intended to punish the egregious conduct of the defendant. However, punitive damages are not available in all cases. In fact, there needs to be evidence of reckless conduct, gross negligence or an intentional act of malice on the part of the defendant.
According to California Civil Code Section 3294(a), punitive damages may only be awarded to a plaintiff if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in the egregious conduct that went above and beyond simple negligence. For example, punitive damages could potentially be awarded when an intoxicated driver hit and killed another driver or a pedestrian. Operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is conduct that generally constitutes gross negligence. Furthermore, if there is clear and convincing evidence that the reckless driver knew he was intoxicated and decided to get behind the wheel of a car, this could be considered an intentional act of malice.Limitations on Punitive Damages Award
Some state legislatures have enacted statutory caps on punitive damages. These caps arbitrarily limit the total amount of punitive damages that can be awarded by a jury to a plaintiff. California does not have such a statutory cap. However, California law requires that any punitive damages award bear a “reasonable relationship” to other damages awarded in your wrongful death case. Basically, this means a jury generally cannot award you $10,000 in economic damages but $500,000 in punitive damages.Amount of Time to Resolve Your Wrongful Death Claim
A common question asked by prospective clients is, “how long will the wrongful death claims process take?” This is a perfectly reasonable question. The truth is that the length of a wrongful death case depends on multiple factors and varies from case-to-case. Some wrongful death cases, especially where liability is admitted by the defendant’s insurance company, get resolved in a matter of months. In other more complex cases, or where liability is challenged, a case may take years to ultimately get resolved.Statute of Limitations for a Wrongful Death Claim
Under California Civil Code Section 335.1, you have two years from the date of the accident that caused your loved one’s death to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This means if you wait and try to file after two years have passed, your case will likely be thrown out of court. The statute of limitations is even shorter if the reckless driver was operating a city or county vehicle and the accident occurred when they were within the scope of their employment for the local government. This is why it is so important to contact an experienced wrongful death attorney to discuss your legal options and assess the amount of time you have remaining to file a lawsuit.
The following video explains more about a wrongful death claim.Berkeley Wrongful Death Lawyer
I’m Ed Smith, a Berkeley Wrongful Death Lawyer. If you have lost someone dear to you due to the negligent actions of someone else, please call me for free and friendly advice at (510) 631-0200.
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Editor's Note: This page has been updated for accuracy and relevancy. [cha 11.18.19]