Handling Wrongful Death Claims Under California Law 101

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How a lawyer recovers money for a death case depends on many factors. Mostly it depends on how the lawyer handles your claim from the start. This article is your best source of California wrongful death law 101 for dummies. It should quickly guide you to your answers about this exciting area of the law.

Here, Los Angeles injury lawyer, Michael P. Ehline, Esq, discusses the general principles and histology of death law. So now you can better understand how a legal eagle goes about it. What is the ultimate goal? The goal is getting you reparations for the negligent death of their loved ones.

Table of Contents:

CA Wrongful Death - What Is it?

Wrongful death is the negligent death of a family member or life partner. (See also citations below.) A wrongful death lawyer recovers money for the survivors. The place of the death, trauma, or domicile of the injury causing corporation or product remain key factors.

Sometimes you can sue in various forums. Some courts and judges are tort reformers. So it would be a good idea to sue in a forum friendly to the client's case.

Wrongful death law in the Golden State remains a specialized form of recovery. And it was not allowed under English Common Law.[1] In any case, this body of law is a creature of statute.

No “Self Help” Allowed.

Before this, it was a “pound of flesh” philosophy. Most of all, people got justice by revenge. So it was “eye for an eye.”

Wrongful Death Revenge Was Outlawed.

But this “self-help” standard became untenable. And it resulted in feuding and many retribution killings. In any case, in North America, the laws evolved. Afterward, it became a system of monetary compensation. And that came from existing tort schemes for the destruction of property.

So now bereaved parties in the U.S. could recover money damages. But each state formulated their statutory scheme.


A kills C, who is the son of B by accident. B, the father of decedent C, can sue death dealer A. So now instead of killing A, a negligence lawsuit gets filed for the death of C caused by A.

Wrongful Death as Vehicle of Recovery:

Statutes remain the vehicle for how injury attorneys recover money for tort claims. And these claims include cases by bereaving families for wrongful death. For this reason, these laws (CA statutes and codes) allow financial compensation. But it remains limited to the surviving, lawful heirs, of a decedent.

But the death must be due to the wrongdoer’s bad conduct. So this includes willful neglect, recklessness, misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance. A wrongful death lawyer (definition here), helps people recover money. For this reason, the money will be called "damages" for personal injuries.

Do the Other States Have Wrongful Death Statutes Different From California?

Other state legislatures have their “wrongful death statutes.” However, every jurisdiction has its own set of wrongful death law modernly. No federal wrongful death statutes exist. So this article stays limited to how lawyers navigate accidental death claims.

Why is How and Who Was Killed is Significant in a Wrongful Death?

How law firms recover money for families depends first upon who caused the death. Also, who got killed, and what the circumstances were surrounding the dead person’s passing?

These items include:

  • Motorcycle Accident Fatalities
  • Truck Accident Fatalities
  • Exploding Airbag Fatalities
  • Burn Injury Fatalities
  • Brain Injuries Leading to Death
  • Electrocution Deaths
  • Cruise Ship Injury Deaths
  • Car Accident Fatality
  • Slip and Falls Leading to Coma and Dying
  • Train Accident Expiration
  • Airplane; Helicopter Accident Fatalities
  • Animal Attack; Dog Bites
  • Boating Accident
  • Parking Structure Accidents

How Do Wrongful Death Attorneys File the Suit?

A civil action for wrongful death is usually on a Judicial Council approved form complaint. First and foremost, the form makes it easier to beat a demurrer. The elements get discussed here. The complaint claims allegations.

In any case, it pleads that decedent was negligent, recklessly, or willfully killed. And he was murdered by the defendant. Presently, the complaint must allege decedent’s heirs are entitled to damages. And they must argue it was from defendant’s evil acts.

Often, the surviving heirs are surviving spouses, decedent’s children. But they can also be the decedent’s parents. And sometimes it may be a wrongful death of a child. A wrongful death lawsuit must get brought by the executor of the decedent’s estate.

However, you can still recover under a survival action theory for decedent’s pain and suffering. So this would be for expenses incurred before death. But usually, both actions get filed together. (Read here.)

Negligent Killings and Damages - How it Works.

Damages get translated into money. So the lawyer will place a value on losses. Losses include things like sex, love, support, money, and care. But they also could be the loss of inheritance, funeral, and medical expenses. Plaintiff's experts will try and convince the jury. But it could also be a bench trial. No matter what, a judge or jury is urged to award "damages" to the claimants.

Sometimes the conduct causing the death was evil. So, in that case, the plaintiff seeks punitive damages. And this is on top of the normal tort damages.

Contrast this with the defense attorney's arguments. The defense will argue it was not reckless enough to rise to the level of punishment.

So the defense will include factors in mitigation. First of all, he will claim that his client was not liable at all. But what if the trial continues to the liability phase? In that case, the defense will argue for negligence instructions.

  • Bifurcation of Trial?

So usually only intentional or extremely reckless conduct raises the damages bar. But if the defense loses, an additional phase of the trial will advance. This will be called the "damages" phase. And this determines the punitive award. Sometimes these get called bifurcated trials.

Special and General Damages.

In most cases, damages get limited to general and special damages. Specials are things like burial expenses and medical bills. Generals are requests for things like pain and suffering. This compensates for the extreme emotional loss wrought.

Also, usually you can also get financial interest on the loss since the date of death. Furthermore, punitive damages often get awarded in cases of recklessness and willful neglect. This means the lawyer will seek these to punish the killer. In any case, it intends to deter others from acting the same in the future.

So this could be a case against a toxic drug maker who sees the writing on the wall. They may very well vacate the marketplace to avoid such a case against them.

Why Should I Retain Wrongful Death Lawyer?

If your loved ones passed away from wrongful death, not just any lawyer would do. You will also want to know how legal champions recover money.

A great lawyer explains this to you. Also, it assures you have an attorney with experience dealing with rules and Courts. In my opinion, judges and defense attorneys should know the plaintiff's lawyer.

They should regularly deal with injuries. Also, they must know how to sue for negligence caused by the misconduct. Also, an attorney may need to investigate many potential wrongdoers. Presumably, defendants could include corporations, people, and other criminals.

Also, statutes of limitations exist for deadlines you need to sue. So that's basically how to handle a wrongful death claim in a nutshell. To learn more, call Michael Ehline, Esq. at (213) 596-9642.


  • “From Loss of Services to Loss of Support: The Wrongful Death Statutes, the Origins of Modern Tort Law, and the Making of the Nineteenth-Century Family” Yale Law Journal


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