Are Punitive Damages Recoverable in Wrongful Death Actions?

California law is a bit confusing. It does not allow for the awarding of punitive damages in wrongful death cases, but it does allow for punitive damages in a survival action case. Yet in both cases, the claim is brought forth after someone loses their life. Here’s what you should know.

Wrongful Death and Survival Action

For clarity:

  • A wrongful death claim is brought forth by eligible surviving family members to compensate them for the loss of a loved one’s income, domestic services, and companionship caused by the negligence of the defendant (see CCP § 377.60)
  • A survival action claim is brought forth by a designated representative of the decedent’s estate to compensate the estate for losses caused by the negligence of the defendant (see CCP § 377.30 – 377.35)

The individual (plaintiff) who brings forth a wrongful death claim can be the same person who files a survival action claim. So, while the two cases are distinct, being a claimant in one case does not bar you from being a claimant in another. However, you must meet the legal eligibility criteria described in the corresponding statute. 

If the decedent did not appoint a representative to manage their estate, the court will designate someone as the representative using the rules of intestate succession.

Seeking punitive damages during a survival action case is critically important when the defendant’s actions were reckless, intentional, or oppressive. While the intent of punitive damages is to set an example discouraging such misconduct, the damages provide a small amount of comfort and critical financial recovery when a family has experienced a devastating loss.

If you have any questions about punitive damages – sometimes called “exemplary damages” in California – or want to investigate a recent wrongful death, you can get help from an experienced San Luis Obispo wrongful death lawyer. Schedule a free, no-obligation case review now when you call (805) 678-0272 or contact us online.

How Are Punitive Damages Typically Awarded in California?

California allows for the awarding of punitive damages in civil personal injury cases under certain circumstances. The purpose of these damages is not to compensate the victims of a wrongful action, but to punish the defendant for their actions and to set an example that discourages others from engaging in similar conduct. For this reason, punitive damages in California are officially termed “exemplary damages.”

To be eligible for exemplary damages, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that the defendant’s conduct could rightfully be described as any of the following (CCP § 3294):

  • Malice: Conduct that intentionally causes injury or represents a willful disregard for the rights and safety of others.
  • Oppression: Conduct that, “subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”
  • Fraud: Intentional misrepresentation, deception, or hiding of facts with the intent to deprive someone of property, legal rights, or that otherwise causes an injury.

During a normal personal injury case – such as when someone is hurt in a San Luis Obispo truck accident – the injury victim (plaintiff) must specifically request punitive damages and prove that one or more of the three conditions above were met. The jury will then consider how bad the defendant’s actions were and award exemplary damages, often based on a multiplier of other damage categories.

California law does not cap punitive damages in personal injury cases. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forces verdicts to only award damages that are reasonable. 

Clarifying, the opinion put out by the court stated that, “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process.”

Often, the defendant will request that the trial bifurcates the matter of deciding exemplary damages. This means that a verdict must first find the defendant liable for damages, and then a second deliberation will determine if punitive damages are appropriate.

How Is a Survival Action Different Than a Wrongful Death Claim?

In order to seek exemplary damages after a wrongful death in California, a representative of the deceased’s estate must first file a survival action claim. While a wrongful death claim intends to compensate the family for their losses, a survival action compensates the deceased’s estate.

To be eligible for a survival action, the decedent must have survived the injuries caused to them for some amount of time. The exception would be cases where the death was ruled a homicide in a separate criminal trial. During this survival period, the decedent will suffer losses like:

  • Medical treatment costs
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering

Since these losses impact the value of the deceased’s estate (all of the property they own), a representative of the estate can seek to recover these losses from the party responsible for the wrongful death. 

Importantly, the survival action claimant can also request exemplary damages in cases of extreme conduct, which must meet the criteria outlined in the above section.

Who Is a Representative of the Decedent’s Estate?

The designated representative will either be named in the decedent’s will or be appointed by the court. When a valid will is present, the will usually either explicitly names a representative or it will strongly imply that someone should be the will’s executor. Most often, the executor is a family member or trusted attorney.

If there is no will and there is no clearly implied representative, the case will likely proceed through probate, where a representative will be designated by the court. This designatory will be someone who is at the top of the list of intestate succession, which is a similar idea to the concept of “next of kin.” 

The court will look at whether there is a surviving/existent member of each category, in order of priority. If not, they will move on to the next possibility. In California, this order goes:

 Spouse > Children > Grandchildren > Parents > Siblings > et cetera.

Exercise Your Right to Seek Punitive Damages After a Wrongful Death in San Luis Obispo

In cases involving wrongful death, there is a strong likelihood that you can also pursue a survival action claim. Grieving family members, trustees, and executors should know that they have the right to request punitive damages in any civil trial involving losses to the decedent’s estate. 

Work with an experienced wrongful death lawyer in San Luis Obispo to consider the facts, build evidence to demonstrate egregious conduct, and formulate arguments that can potentially convince a jury that exemplary damages are not only appropriate but wholly deserved.

Learn more about your legal options following the death of a loved one during a free, no-obligation consultation with the Ernst Law Group. Call us at (805) 678-0272 or contact us online to schedule your free appointment now.


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