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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.

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.

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 Statute of Limitations in California

One of the most important rules surrounding wrongful death cases regards the statute of limitations. This legal term refers to the time limit for filing a suit. 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. The clock begins to run when the death occurs.
  • 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 governmental body – 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.

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.

Anyone who thinks they may have legal grounds for a wrongful death action should contact an attorney as soon as possible to schedule a 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.