How Do Wrongful Death Auto Accident Lawsuits Work in CA?


Losing a loved one is an extraordinarily painful experience, and losing someone in a car accident is a particularly intense tragedy. Read on to learn about wrongful death lawsuits in California and how a San Mateo County, California car accident lawyer can help you.

What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

Wrongful death lawsuits are meant to compensate the survivors for their anguish after another person’s misconduct led to the unfair and unjust death of a loved one (in these cases, the decedent). Loved ones may be able to receive financial compensation for damages like

  • Loss of companionship and affection
  • Financial loss (as the decedent can no longer offer support)
  • Funeral expenses

Medical malpractice, dangerous situations such as car accidents caused by someone’s negligence, and intentional harm can all result in a wrongful death.

Wrongful Death versus Criminal Homicide

Given that these cases can involve intentional harm, what’s the difference between it and criminal homicide? That’s largely procedural, though “merely” procedural differences can have a big impact on people’s lives.

First of all, when the defendant is unsuccessful in a wrongful death claim, they must pay the plaintiff damages for their suffering. When the defendant is unsuccessful in fighting against a criminal homicide charge, the defendant may face imprisonment and probation in addition to compensating the suffering of the decedent’s family.

The standard of proof is also different in a wrongful death case versus a criminal homicide case. Because of the heavy consequences associated with criminal charges, the standard of proof for prosecutors is the highest one that exists in the law, beyond a reasonable doubt. With a civil lawsuit, however, the consequences may be financially heavy, but in part, the absence of potential punishments like jail time leads to a lower standard of proof. Typically plaintiffs must show by a preponderance of the evidence that it is more likely than not for the defendant to have been responsible.

Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Within What Timeframe?

In California, you may file a wrongful death lawsuit after the death of your spouse, your domestic partner, or your parents, among others. California gives priority to loved ones for bringing a lawsuit in this order:

  • Spouse or domestic partner
  • Children
  • Children of the deceased child of the decedent (meaning the grandchildren of the decedent)

There are also other individuals allowed to bring a wrongful death lawsuit, provided they can show they were financially dependent on the decedent.

  • Putative spouse, who believed in good faith they were lawfully married to the decedent but were mistaken
  • Stepchildren
  • Parents, or if the parents are deceased, legal guardians

The statute of limitations refers to another requirement plaintiffs should keep in mind. The loved ones of a decedent will have two years after the death to file a lawsuit.

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