What Constitutes Wrongful Death in California?

The death of a loved one is the most difficult event we have to deal with in this lifetime. And when the death was caused intentionally or through someone else’s negligence, the loss can be especially painful. 

Furthermore, survivors may be left with significant debts following the loss. There are funeral and burial costs, loss of the loved one’s income, and the emotional suffering that comes with their passing.

Recovering Damages Post-Death

One small consolation to families is that they may be able to recover some of these losses from all at-fault parties. With a wrongful death claim in California, a family can begin to heal from the financial and emotional aftereffects of the loss.

Not every suspicious or preventable death in California provides grounds for a wrongful death claim. Working with a San Luis Obispo wrongful death lawyer can allow you to determine whether you have a strong case. 

Your attorney will assist you in identifying all at-fault parties, providing evidence of their negligence, calculating predicted losses, and other essential components of a strong wrongful death case.

If you are suffering from a recent loss and are concerned about the financial damages affecting your future well-being, call Ernst Law Group today. We work closely with our clients, guiding them through this difficult time with minimal stress.

Dial (805)-541-0300 or contact us online now, and you can schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with an experienced San Luis Obispo wrongful death attorney.

Negligence and Intentional Wrongful Acts

One of the most difficult realities for survivors is that not every situation will constitute a valid wrongful death claim in California.

California Code of Civil Procedure § 377.60 states that any “death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another” can allow certain individuals to potentially bring forth a wrongful death claim.

Let’s examine these two requirements more closely:

  • Wrongful act: An illegal act, as determined by the California state or federal code of criminal law. Wrongful death claims are a civil action, and they can be brought forth at the same time that a criminal trial is ongoing. Also, an individual can be found “not guilty” for a criminal act yet still be found liable for a civil wrongful death claim.
  • Neglect (AKA “negligence”): Negligence occurs when an individual (the defendant) violates their expected “duty of care” to act in a way that an “ordinary person” exercising “reasonable care” would. This breach in their duty of care directly causes a fatal injury, leading to losses experienced by the surviving family members (plaintiffs).

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

Every state has its own laws governing who can bring forth a valid wrongful death claim. California, fortunately, is more lenient than other states. While certain individuals – like the deceased’s surviving spouse and/or children – have priority for such a claim, anyone entitled to the victim’s property by way of “intestate succession” is eligible.

Intestate succession means how the courts would decide to allot the property of the deceased if a valid last will and testament does not exist. For example, if the deceased has no surviving spouse or children, then the deceased’s parents or siblings might be next in line to inherit based on intestate succession rules.

The specific language of the law (§ 377.60) states that the following people can bring forth a claim:

  1. The victim’s surviving spouse/domestic partner and children. If a specific child of the deceased is also no longer alive, then that child’s child (the deceased’s grandchild) is eligible.
  2. If there is no surviving spouse, children, or eligible grandchildren, then anyone “who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession” is eligible to bring forth a claim. Examples include surviving siblings and other relatives. 
  3. Dependents of the decedent, the decedent’s “putative spouse” (someone who legitimately thought they were married, even if they legally weren’t), children of the putative spouse, stepchildren, and parents
  4. A minor who lived with the decedent for at least 180 days before their death and who depended on the decedent for at least half of their support
  5. A decedent’s “personal representative,” which means the person assigned to be the executor and/or the representative of the decedent’s estate

What Is Negligence in a San Luis Obispo Wrongful Death Claim?

Negligence is a very specific legal concept that allows the victims of certain reckless acts to demonstrate that their loss would not have occurred had the negligent party acted in a reasonably safe manner.

The four components of a valid negligence claim are as follows:

  • Duty of care: A duty to act in a certain way or avoid certain actions known to be likely harmful. A defendant’s duty can encompass professional standards or contractual obligations. It can also simply refer to the actions that a “reasonable person” exercising “ordinary care” would take to avoid causing others harm.
  • A Breach of Duty: A failure on the part of the defendant to uphold their duty of care. This can include situations where the defendant committed an act contrary to their duty or failed to commit an act that would have upheld their duty.
  • Direct causation of a fatal injury: The defendant’s breach of their duty must have had a direct hand in the injury (including medical conditions) that led to the decedent’s death.
  • Damages: The loss of the decedent caused damages that can be recovered through the legal system.

In other words, negligence means that someone’s careless actions directly caused the death of an individual, causing losses to the surviving plaintiffs.

What Damages Are Claimable in a San Luis Obispo Wrongful Death Case?

It’s important to remember that a wrongful death claim seeks reimbursement for costs (including emotional costs) directly affecting the claimant.

Common damages awarded after a wrongful death claim include:

  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Loss of the deceased’s future earnings
  • Loss of specific benefits or gifts
  • Loss of companionship
  • Reasonable replacement cost of domestic services the deceased provided

Survival Actions Can Be Used to Reclaim the Remaining Losses

Note that these wrongful death damages listed above do not include losses that the deceased would have directly experienced. 

In order to recover such losses, a representative of the deceased’s estate has to bring forth a separate claim, called a “survival action” (§ 377.30). Survival actions allow someone to recover losses to the victim’s estate. These losses are nearly identical to a typical personal injury claim that someone could file while they are living.

Survival action damages include:

  • The cost of healthcare provided to the decedent from the time of their injury to the time of their death
  • Debts or expenses triggered by the premature death, sometimes including the estate’s legal fees

Get Help from a Wrongful Death Lawyer in San Luis Obispo

Ernst Law Group has a history of winning multimillion-dollar settlements and trial verdicts on behalf of our clients. Our San Luis Obispo wrongful death attorneys work tirelessly to help you build a strong case and see it through to the end. We have experience negotiating with insurers and proving liability using high-standard evidence.

You can trust us to manage your wrongful death case with care and compassion. Speak to us during a free, no-obligation case review when you call (805)-541-0300 or contact us online today.


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