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What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Cases?

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Cases?

When someone loses his or her life in an accident, the surviving family members may be able to collect the damages that result by filing a wrongful death lawsuit. These legal actions follow certain procedures. Knowing the process is the best way to protect your family’s right to a claim. Our Irvine wrongful death lawyers can help you bring your claim.

Wrongful death statute of limitations California

What Is a Wrongful Death Action?

In California, certain survivors of a decedent may file a wrongful death action when a loved one dies as the result of another person’s reckless or negligent conduct. Unlike many other states, California law allows the survivors to file the action with the court directly, rather than a personal representative of the state. If a wrongful death action is successful, the court will order the negligent party to pay monetary damages to the survivors of the decedent.

A wrongful death claim may arise from virtually any type of accident – a car crash, workplace accident, or negligent security, among other incidents. Think of a wrongful death action as a personal injury claim that survivors bring on behalf of the decedent. In other words, the decedent would have had legal grounds for a personal injury claim, had he or she lived.

Compensation for a Wrongful Death in California

The compensation collected in a wrongful death suit, or, damages, are intended to compensate the surviving family members and the estate for the losses incurred due to the loved one’s untimely death. There are several types of damages that may be recovered, which generally fall into the categories of economic and non-economic damages.

Economic Damages

  • Medical bills: If the deceased received any medical care before their death resulting from the defendant’s wrongful actions, these costs could be recovered.
  • Funeral and burial costs: The expenses for the funeral and burial of the deceased can be significant, and survivors can seek compensation for these costs.
  • Lost income: If the decedent was a primary income earner, the survivors could recover the lost wages that the decedent would have earned had they lived.
  • Loss of benefits: This might include health insurance, pension, or other benefits that the decedent would have provided to the survivors.

Non-Economic Damages

  • Loss of companionship: This compensation is meant to address the emotional pain and suffering caused by the loss of a loved one.
  • Loss of support and services: This includes the value of the services that the decedent would have provided, such as childcare, housekeeping, etc.
  • Loss of consortium: For a spouse or domestic partner, this refers to the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, and moral support, as well as the loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations.
  • In some cases, plaintiffs may also seek punitive damages. These are not typically available in wrongful death lawsuits in California, but there may be exceptions.

Each wrongful death case is unique, and the specific damages that may be awarded can vary significantly based on the circumstances. An experienced wrongful death attorney can provide guidance based on the specifics of your case.

What Laws Govern Wrongful Death Cases?

Every state has its own rules for filing wrongful death cases and the types of compensation a family can collect. For example, only certain parties can file a wrongful death action on behalf of a decedent under California law. Section 377.60 of the California Code of Civil Procedure states that the following individuals may file a wrongful death action:

  • The surviving spouse
  • The surviving domestic partner
  • The children
  • Anyone who the law might entitle to property via succession like parents or siblings
  • Certain parties who can show they were financially dependent on the decedent, such as the putative spouse, children of the putative spouse, or stepchildren

The California Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations

One of the most important rules surrounding wrongful death cases regards the statute of limitations as defined within the state’s legislation. This statute refers to the time limit for filing a suit. In general, three different time limits may apply to wrongful death cases:

  • In most situations, a wrongful death action must occur within two years of the injury or death. 
  • When a death occurs as the result of medical malpractice, the surviving family members have 3 years from the date of injury, or 3 years from when the decedent should have discovered the injury through due diligence, whichever date is sooner.
  • When a death occurs through the negligence of any government entity – for example, a car accident resulting from negligent road maintenance – then survivors have six months to file a claim. It’s important to remember that government claims follow other strict procedures, so it’s essential to contact an attorney as soon as possible.

Exceptions to the California Statute of Limitations

In California, most wrongful death cases will fall under the scope of the above limitations. If the lawsuit is not filed within this timeframe, the right to file and recover damages on the deceased’s behalf may be permanently lost.

However, under certain circumstances, the statute of limitations may be extended or “tolled” – that is, the clock may be paused for a period of time.

Discovery Rule

One common reason for tolling the statute of limitations is what’s known as the “discovery rule.” The discovery rule can extend the time limit when the cause of death wasn’t discovered, or couldn’t have been discovered with reasonable diligence, until after the two-year deadline has passed. In such cases, the clock on the statute of limitations may start ticking from the date of discovery of the wrongful death instead of the date of death.

Defendant’s Absence from California

According to California Code of Civil Procedure §351, if the defendant is absent from the state, the time of their absence often doesn’t count toward the statute of limitations. As such, the deadline for filing the lawsuit could be extended by the length of time the defendant was absent from California.

Plaintiff’s Legal Disability

The statute of limitations may also be tolled if the plaintiff lacked the legal ability to make decisions at the time of the decedent’s death, such as being a minor or mentally incapacitated. For instance, if the plaintiff is a minor, the statute of limitations would not start until the minor reaches the age of 18.

These exceptions are complex and require a deep understanding of the law. Therefore, it’s recommended to consult with a qualified wrongful death attorney to understand these exceptions fully and ensure the claim is filed within the correct limitation period. Additionally, a competent lawyer will also understand that the matter of losing a loved one to someone’s wrongful act is a delicate matter and one that must be treated with great care and attention to the needs of the survivors.

Why Is the Statute of Limitations So Important?

A statute of limitations helps define whether or not a family has legal grounds for a wrongful death action. Filing a claim even a day after the deadline has passed could result in the courts refusing to hear the case. Keep in mind that the statute of limitations may vary, depending on the nature of the case. For this reason, it’s essential to adhere to all filing deadlines and procedures.

Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

The valuable insight and negotiation skills of a dedicated wrongful death lawyer can be invaluable to grieving families and personal representatives following a wrongful death event. What may be crucial to your case is not only your attorney’s knowledge of the law, including how wrongful death statutes in your area may affect your ability to file a claim on time, but also the following steps and procedures that take place after filing. 

A California wrongful death attorney can help ensure your claim is valued accurately so that those entitled to compensation receive the full benefit they deserve. Your attorney will be able to negotiate with the insurance company, act as a legal advocate for the family or estate’s best interests, and, if necessary, provide strong representation in a court of law. 

Anyone who thinks they may have legal grounds for a wrongful death action should contact an attorney as soon as possible to schedule a free consultation and review of their claim. This helps ensure that the surviving family members will file the action within the statute of limitations and protect their right to compensation under California law.

Reach out to the skilled attorneys at Bentley & More LLC for more information about your legal options to pursue a wrongful death action in California. Our team will be more than glad to assist you in answering any additional questions you may have and determining how we might best aid you in your legal matter.