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What damages are available in California wrongful death cases?

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Stephen C. Ball - Personal Injury - General - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Stephen C. Ball

Located in Pasadena, CABall, Bonholtzer & Evans

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Wrongful death – when a loved one is snatched away, before their time, because of someone else’s negligence – is the ultimate personal injury. Such a loss can have far-reaching ramifications for surviving family members. Your life has taken a turn you never expected. Your future suddenly looks much different from what you ever imagined. How could any amount of compensation fill this gaping hole?

Of course, money can’t replace your loved one. But financial recovery – also called damages – can address the financial impact of your loss. In California wrongful death claims, surviving family members can recover both economic and noneconomic losses. Additional damages may be available in survival actions.

Economic Losses

These damages cover measurable financial losses stemming directly from the victim’s death. They include: 

  • Financial support the victim would have provided (including future lost earnings)
  • Funeral, burial and cremation expenses
  • Gifts, inheritances or other benefits the victim’s heirs would have received
  • Household services the victim would have provided (such as child care, cooking, cleaning and the like)

These damages must take into account the life expectancy of the victim or surviving family members (whichever is shorter). Additionally, compensation for future economic losses must be reduced to present-day cash value.

Noneconomic Losses

Surviving family members can also pursue compensation for noneconomic losses. These damages cover losses that can’t easily be calculated or quantified, including: 

  • Loss of the victim’s love, companionship, emotional support, affection, assistance, comfort and care
  • Loss of training and guidance (when the victim was a parent, spouse or other adult)
  • Loss of intimate relations (when the victim was a spouse or domestic partner)

There is no formula for pinpointing a dollar amount in these cases. Juries must use their own best judgment and common sense, in light of the evidence, to arrive at a reasonable figure.

In medical malpractice cases, California law caps noneconomic damages at $250,000.

Which Factors Can’t Be Taken Into Account

When awarding damages in wrongful death cases, California juries are not supposed to consider: 

  • The victim’s pain and suffering (except in certain elder abuse cases)
  • The grief, sorrow and anguish of surviving family members
  • The family’s wealth or poverty

Nor can they attempt to punish the wrongdoer by awarding punitive damages (with a few limited exceptions).

Damages In Survival Actions

Survival actions allow the victim’s family members to step into their shoes and raise a personal injury claim on their behalf. However, for a survival claim to exist, the victim must have lived for at least a brief amount of time after the accident or injury that caused their death.

In survival actions, different damages are available, including compensation for medical expenses related to the accident. Punitive damages – those designed to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar behavior – are also available in cases involving egregious misconduct such as drunk driving.

Depending on the circumstances, family members may be entitled to bring both wrongful death and survival claims in the same suit. A lawyer can walk you through the options for recovery in your specific situation.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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