If your loved one has died because of someone else’s actions, you likely want to march into court and demand the responsible party be held accountable for your tragic loss.

California law does allow surviving family members to financially recover for losses caused by a wrongful death. However, doing so is not as simple as stating that you believe you deserve compensation. Instead, state law and the courts require strict procedures be followed and legal burdens of proof be met before another party is held liable for a wrongful death.

In order to prove a death was wrongful, you must have facts to show certain legal elements. In California, you must prove the death occurred because of another party’s neglect or wrongful act.

You must also have enough evidence to meet the required burden of proof. A burden of proof is the amount of evidence you must present in support of your assertions to convince a judge or a jury that a wrongful death did occur. You do not have to prove wrongful death beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, you must prove it is at least 51 percent likely the death was wrongful; this burden of proof is called the “preponderance of the evidence.”

These legal terms can be confusing but a highly experienced wrongful death attorney will fully understand how to prove all necessary elements of a wrongful death case. The following is some brief information about wrongful death elements in California.

Sufficient Proof of Negligence

If your loved one’s wrongful death was caused by negligence–as many wrongful deaths unfortunately are–you must sufficiently satisfy all specific legal elements of negligence. These elements are as follows:

  • The liable party had a certain duty of care owed to the victims;
  • The party breached that duty of care in some manner;
  • The breach led to the accident and injuries that caused the death; and
  • The death resulted in losses to you and other claimants.

Duties of care can vary depending on the specific type of accident that occurred. The following are some examples of duties of care and how they may be breached:

  • A driver has a duty to drive in a reasonably safe manner based on the weather and road conditions. Breach of this duty can occur in many ways, including distracted driving, drunk driving, aggressive driving, violating traffic laws, or other careless acts.
  • A company has a duty to sell products that are safe for their intended use and to warn consumers about potential risks. If a company produces or sells a product that is defective or unreasonably dangerous without proper warnings, this can constitute a breach of duty.
  • A medical professional is expected to provide the level of care that other similarly trained and reasonable professionals would provide in the same situation. If a doctor’s actions fall below that standard and a mistake is made, the duty of care is breached.
  • A property owner has a duty to ensure his or her premises are free from dangerous conditions or hazards. If an owner knew or should have known about a hazard and did not fix it or warn visitors, he or she has breached the duty of care.

Once you have established breach of duty, you must then present evidence that the breach of duty caused or contributed to your loved one’s injuries and death.

Proving Intentional Harm

Some wrongful death cases do not arise from negligence but instead from intentional violence. The elements to prove an intentional act are specific and are as follows:

  • The person had the intent to commit the act;
  • The person made non-consensual contact with the victim (this can include hitting someone with a car or using a weapon); and
  • The contact caused fatal harm.

In many cases, violent deaths result in a criminal case for homicide or manslaughter, which will be handled separately from the wrongful death case. However, a skilled attorney will know how to use a criminal case to help your chances of recovery for wrongful death.

Proving Damages

If you can establish the death of your loved was caused by the negligent or wrongful act of another person, the next step is to show you have sustained damages as a result of your loss. Importantly, California courts have consistently held that damages for emotional distress are not recoverable in a wrongful death action. That being said, in many cases, a person asserting a wrongful death claim may also assert a negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the same party.

Some of the more common damages sought in wrongful death cases in California include the following:

  • Costs associated with the funeral and burial of the decedent;
  • Loss of future income;
  • Loss of financial support;
  • Loss of household services; and
  • The loss of the decedent’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support.

Establishing these damages is often difficult and requires significant expert analysis. For example, in determining how much a person would have made over the course of his or her career, it is necessary to take a number of factors into account, including life expectancy, the normal course of advancement for a person in his or her position, inflation, and education, skills, and abilities. For this reason, demonstrating these damages in the course of a settlement negotiation or trial often requires the presentation of substantial evidence and the assistance of an attorney can be invaluable.

A California Wrongful Death Lawyer Can Help

Overall, proving the elements of a wrongful death can be complicated, though these elements are required in order for you to recover. A member of the experienced legal team at GJEL Accident Attorneys can help you bring a successful wrongful death claim, so please call 866-218-3776 for a free consultation today.


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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.