Do California Courts Undervalue Life in Wrongful Death Lawsuits? 1Clearly, no value can be put on a human life. When a family member or friend has died in a tragic accident, a lawsuit settlement or jury victory will not bring them back or restore their future. That said, monetary settlements are the way our court system deals with such deaths, and when the victim is responsible for supporting a family, financial rewards are completely justified. So it’s always a difficult undertaking when government agencies attempt to put a specific value on a human life. But if you look closely, California courts are particularly guilty of undervaluing lives lost in medical accidents.

In a recent story for the New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum reports that a number of federal agencies have effectively put a price on human life. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the value at $9.1 million, the Food and Drug Administration at $7.9 million, and the Transportation Department has valued human life at $6 million. But a little known California law, the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), stipulates that for medical errors that result in wrongful death, families can only be awarded a maximum of $250,000.

What’s worse is that courts are not permitted to inform juries that the maximum monetary award for medical errors resulting in wrongful death is $250,000. So if a jury decides on a higher penalty, the sum will later be automatically reduced to $250,000. And it only applies to hospital errors. If the same doctor ran over a pedestrian at an intersection, for example, courts would not be bound by the same $250,000 wrongful death penalty limit. Here’s how J.G. Preston of Protect Consumer Justice describes MICRA:

The law uses the technical legal term “non-economic damages” to characterize what is capped. It’s a clinical-sounding term that really means, in cases like Delaney’s, the value of a human life. In other cases where the MICRA cap applies, “non-economic damages” means the value of the ability to walk, if you are left paralyzed by medical negligence…the value of being able to have a child, if you are left sterile by medical negligence…the value of living a normal pain-free life, if you are left in agony by medical negligence…the value of going into the world without being stared at or having people turn away from you, if you are left horribly disfigured by medical negligence.

Clearly, no sum can compensate for the life of a family member. But above and beyond the emotional impact of losing a loved one, the family should be entitled to significant economic damages if a father, mother, daughter, or son is killed in a medical accident beyond their control. Since California has a strong track record of valuing the lives of its citizens, it is surprising that it would value the lives of people killed in medical accidents so much lower than other federal agencies.

Photo credit: Jose Goulau

California courts are known for awarding lower damages in wrongful death lawsuits than in other states. This is a source of frustration for many families who have lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, and it is an issue that our law firm has dealt with many times.

The Legal Framework for Wrongful Death Lawsuit Valuations

Wrongful death lawsuits in California are governed by California Civil Code Section 377.60. Under this law, the surviving family members of the deceased may bring a lawsuit against the person or entity responsible for the death.

The damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit include compensation for the economic and non-economic losses suffered by the family. Economic losses may include funeral expenses, medical bills, lost income, and lost earning capacity. Non-economic losses may include the loss of love, companionship, guidance, and support.

Why California Courts Undervalue Life in Wrongful Death Lawsuits

There are several reasons why California courts undervalue life in wrongful death lawsuits:

  1. Caps on Damages: In California, non-economic damages are capped at $250,000 for medical malpractice cases and $250,000 for cases against government entities. This means that families can only recover up to $250,000 for their non-economic losses, no matter how devastating their loss may be.
  2. The “Value” of Life: Courts in California have been known to view the value of a human life as lower than in other states. This is because California courts consider the economic losses suffered by the family when determining the value of the non-economic losses. This approach often results in lower damages than in other states that do not consider economic losses.
  3. Contributory Negligence: California is a contributory negligence state, which means that if the deceased was partially responsible for their own death, the damages awarded to the family will be reduced. This can result in lower damages even if the person or entity responsible for the death was also negligent.

What Families Can Do to Ensure Fairer Valuations for Wrongful Deaths

While the legal system in California may undervalue life in wrongful death lawsuits, there are steps that families can take to ensure that they receive fair compensation:

  1. Hire an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney: A wrongful death attorney who is experienced in California law can help families navigate the legal system and fight for fair compensation.
  2. Document Economic and Non-Economic Losses: It is important for families to document all of their economic and non-economic losses, including medical bills, funeral expenses, lost income, and the loss of love, companionship, guidance, and support.
  3. Negotiate with the Insurance Company: Insurance companies often try to settle wrongful death cases for as little as possible. An experienced attorney can negotiate with the insurance company to ensure that the family receives fair compensation.
  4. Consider Alternative Dispute Resolution: Alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation or arbitration, can be a way for families to resolve their case without going to court. This can be a faster and less expensive option than going to trial.