California Wrongful Death Attorneys

Wrongful Death Law in California

The unexpected death of a loved one is a devastating event that no one prepares for. The emotional toll of such a tragedy can be much harder to bear when another person or entity is to blame for your loss. In California, when someone’s death is the result of wrongful behavior or negligence, surviving family members can file what is known as a “wrongful death” lawsuit in civil court. An experienced California wrongful death lawyer can explain your rights and help you and your family seek justice for the pain you are experiencing.

In this post, we provide a basic overview of wrongful death laws in California. We’ll cover the elements of a wrongful death claim, who can file a wrongful death lawsuit, and the different types of damages that are available to a successful plaintiff. We also discuss how the statute of limitations can impact your claim. This post is designed to give you basic information and should not be relied upon in the absence of advice from a qualified attorney. If you have questions about your rights or your family’s rights, contact a wrongful death lawyer right away.

California Wrongful Death Guide
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What is “Wrongful Death” in California?

The term “wrongful death” has legal significance in California. A wrongful death lawsuit is a type of civil legal action that can be brought by the survivors of a deceased person who died as a result of a wrongful act or negligence. Some wrongful death cases are filed based on behavior that is also the subject of criminal charges. In such a scenario, the two cases will proceed independently of one another. However, there does not need to be a crime or criminal conviction in order to bring a wrongful death case. Certain types of reckless or negligent conduct can be a sufficient basis for such a lawsuit irrespective of any alleged or proven criminal liability.

Unlike a criminal lawsuit involving homicide charges like manslaughter or murder, which can result in a defendant being convicted and receiving a criminal sentence, fault in a wrongful death lawsuit leads solely to the award of money damages. If you succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit, the court will order the responsible party to pay a sum of money to you and your family members. As discussed in greater detail below, this sum of money can include damages for medical bills, funeral costs, lost income, and loss of emotional support.

What are the Elements of a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

In legal terminology, an “element” is an essential building block of a case. In order for someone to succeed in a case, the evidence must establish all of the required elements. In a wrongful death lawsuit in California, the following elements must be proven.

  1. The death of a human being;
  2. That was caused by another’s negligence, or with intent to cause harm; and
  3. The surviving family members are suffering financial losses as a result of the death.

We’ll now discuss each of these elements.

Element One: What Kinds of Accidents or Intentional Acts Cause a Wrongful Death?

There are several different kinds of accidents that can lead to a wrongful death. These include car accidents, commercial truck accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, the use or consumption of dangerous or defective products, prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals, medical malpractice by a doctor or healthcare facility, fires, and other types of fatal accidents. Intentional acts such as a deadly assault, manslaughter, murder, arson, or other deliberately harmful act also may be the basis of a wrongful death claim.

Element Two: Was the Death Caused by Negligent or Intentional Conduct?

The causation element is critical in a wrongful death claim. In order to recover damages, you must be able to show that your loved one’s death was actually caused by the negligent or intentional conduct of the defendant. For example, you cannot sue a hospital just because your loved one died of cancer there. There is no wrongful death liability when someone dies purely from natural causes. However, if you can show that your loved one died of cancer as a result of prolonged exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in his or her workplace, you may be able to sue the former employer for wrongful death.

Because causation in a wrongful death lawsuit can be difficult to establish, it is important to hire a lawyer who has extensive experience taking wrongful death lawsuits to trial and obtaining successful verdicts for his or her clients.

Element Three: Have Survivors Suffered a Loss?

You and your family must be able to establish that you have suffered losses as a result of your loved one’s death. These might include loss of your loved one’s affection and emotional support, financial support, or contributions to the household. Other types of losses include money you spent or will need to spend to take care of your deceased loved one’s medical expenses and funeral costs. A wrongful death lawyer can help you understand the full value of your wrongful death claim and will carefully calculate the amount of damages to which you are entitled.

The professional and personal care that everyone at GJEL has extended to our family has been beyond compare.
–M. and S.
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Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in California?

The California civil statute on wrongful death claims provides that only certain individuals are eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Specifically, the following parties can bring a wrongful death claim:

  • The deceased person’s surviving spouse,
  • The deceased person’s surviving domestic partner, and
  • The deceased person’s surviving children and grandchildren.

In the event that there is no surviving person who falls into any of these categories (sometimes referred to as the “line of descent”), a wrongful death lawsuit may be filed by someone who would be entitled under California law to inherit the deceased person’s property. This may include the deceased person’s parents or siblings, depending on who is alive at the time of the deceased person’s passing.

A qualified wrongful death lawyer can help you understand who can file a wrongful death lawsuit and how any proceeds from the lawsuit will be distributed amongst surviving family members.

What is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death in California?

A “statute of limitations” is a procedural court rule that requires lawsuits to be brought within a certain time period. If the case is not filed by this deadline, it cannot be brought in court and will be dismissed.

In California, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim is two years from the date of the deceased person’s passing. However, there is an important exception to the statute of limitations known as the “discovery rule.” In cases where the cause of a person’s death was not apparent when the individual died, but the cause is later discovered, this might extend the amount of time that person’s family has to file a wrongful death lawsuit. If the discovery rule applies, the statute of limitations will be two years from the date on which the cause of death is ascertained. There are further exceptions to the discovery rule that a wrongful death lawyer can help you understand.

Because the application of the statute of limitations in California is strict and this rule may prevent you from having your claim heard in court, you should contact a lawyer right away following the wrongful death of a loved one. A lawyer can help you ensure that you file your lawsuit before this deadline passes.

Case Result

A bicyclist was struck by a vehicle as he crossed an intersection on Fairgrounds Drive in Vallejo. After fighting for his life for months in the hospital he eventually succumbed and passed away, leaving behind a wife and three young daughters. His post-accident treatment at the hospital produced a staggering bill.


Jim Larsen and the lawyers of GJEL investigated the accident thoroughly, deposing police officers and witnesses from the scene of the accident.


Through witness and expert testimony GJEL was able to demonstrate that even though the bicyclist was crossing against a red light, the driver still had ample time to see the cyclist and slow down to avoid the collision. Unfortunately for all parties involved, this was not the case. GJEL was able to secure a $500,000 settlement, with $100,000 going to each of the three daughters as a college fund.