According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, close to 3,000 people per year lose their lives due to distracted driving. Despite laws being passed with increasing penalties, the incidence of distracted driving continues to increase. A large percentage of these accidents happen on Orange County freeways where stop-and-go traffic requires constant attention. When cars are close together, even the slightest distraction can cause a serious crash. That’s why victims of distracted driving accidents often suffer catastrophic injuries such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), paralysis, and blindness.
If you have recently lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact an Orange County wrongful death attorney at the Crockett Law Group to learn about how we can help you during this difficult and painful time. Call (800) 900-9393 for a free consultation with our Orange County personal injury attorneys.
What Qualifies as Wrongful Death?
A “wrongful death” occurs when someone is responsible for causing the death of someone else. It’s a lot like a personal injury claim, except the victim is killed rather than injured. In fact, a lot of wrongful death claims start out as personal injury claims where someone is injured by someone else’s negligence, but then they eventually succumb to their injuries.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Suit in California?
According to California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60, the following members of the victim’s family can bring a wrongful death lawsuit:
- Domestic partners
- Grandchildren (if the deceased’s children are also deceased)
- Stepchildren or parents if they were financially dependent on the decedent
- Any minor who resided in the decedent’s household for the last 180 days and was dependent on the decedent for at least 50% of their financial support
- Anyone else who would be entitled to the deceased’s property by intestate succession (“intestate succession” refers to California laws governing the inheritance of property from someone who dies without a will)
What Is the Leading Cause of Wrongful Death in Orange County?
The most common causes of wrongful death overlap with the most common causes of personal injury, including:
For example, a family of four is driving to the beach on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach when they’re suddenly involved in a car accident, are struck head-on by another driver and killed.
For example, a truck driver making a delivery at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa exits the CA 73 freeway at Bear St. and accidentally strikes and kills a pedestrian crossing the road.
For example, a motorcyclist is killed while riding to Cook’s Corner in Trabuco Canyon to meet some friends at the bar after being knocked off his bike by a car that accidentally crossed over the double yellow line on E Santiago Canyon Rd.
For example, a bicyclist leaves his home to go ride on the I Loop Bike Trail when he’s suddenly hit and killed before he even leaves his neighborhood by a driver that fails to stop at the posted stop sign.
For example, two friends just finished hiking the Back Bay Loop Trail in Newport Beach when they cross Eastbluff Dr. and one gets hit and killed by a speeding car.
For example, a newlywed couple buys furniture from the Ikea store in Costa Mesa, but the dresser they bought tips over and crushes their infant to death.
For example, a young lady is killed while trying to save her Chihuahua from being attacked by a Pit Bull at the Laguna Beach Dog Park.
What Are the Elements of a Wrongful Death Claim?
Like any personal injury claim, there are essentially four elements you must prove in a wrongful death claim:
- The at-fault party owed the deceased a duty of care
- That duty of care was breached by the at-fault party
- That breach led to the victim’s death
- The victim’s death caused losses to their family
For example, drivers owe a duty of care to pedestrians within the marked crosswalk at the 17th Street and Fairview Street intersection in Santa Ana. A driver breaches his duty of care when he turns left and hits a pedestrian within that crosswalk. The pedestrian immediately dies at the scene of the accident as a result of blunt force trauma. The pedestrian’s husband does not work and relied upon the deceased pedestrian for her love and support. The pedestrian’s husband had a legitimate wrongful death claim against the driver that killed his wife.
What Damages Can Be Awarded in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
The decedent’s family members may be awarded money (aka damages) to compensate them for the loss of their loved one. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 3921 explains the two types of damages that may be awarded:
Economic damages are broken down into four categories:
- Financial Support: This includes the financial support the decedent would have contributed to the family during your lifetime or during the decedent’s lifetime, whichever is shorter
- Gifts/Benefits: This includes the loss of gifts or benefits you could have been expected to receive from the decedent
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Household Services: This includes the value of household services the decedent would have provided
These damages are broken down into three categories:
- Love: This includes the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support you would have received from the decedent
- Sex: This includes the loss of sexual enjoyment between you and the decedent if applicable
- Guidance: This includes the loss of the decedent’s training and guidance
Punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death lawsuit in California. Punitive damages may be available, however, through a survivorship claim made on behalf of the decedent’s estate.
How Long Does It Take to Settle Wrongful Death Claims?
The average amount of time it takes to settle a wrongful death claim is anywhere between 1 and 4 years. There are situations where a wrongful death claim is settled quicker though, such as when:
The responsible person has a small insurance policy. If your loved one was killed by an individual who was insured with a small policy (ex: $15,000), then their insurance company will probably offer to settle for these limits pretty fast.
You’re eager to settle. Generally speaking, the insurance company wants to get out a wrongful death claim as quickly as possible because they know how valuable they can be. So, they promptly make you a lowball offer hoping you’ll be enticed seeing as how you have funeral and burial expenses to pay for.
Don’t fall into these traps. Your loved one’s life is too precious to let the at-fault party get away so easily. It’s important you hire a wrongful death attorney in Orange County, CA, who can help you locate additional damages to potentially recover from and get you the most from your claim.
Is There a Statute of Limitations on Wrongful Death Claims in California?
Yes. California law requires you to file a lawsuit within two years from the date of the decedent’s death or else you risk being barred from ever doing so.
For example, on March 1, 2020, a crossing guard in front of the Pacific Drive Elementary School in Fullerton gets struck and killed by a car rushing to pick up their child from school. The crossing guard’s spouse has until March 1, 2022, to file a lawsuit for wrongful death against the parent that struck his spouse.
There are exceptions for public entities, minors, and medical malpractice claims. The best thing you can do is seek a consultation with a wrongful death attorney in Orange County.
A minor who loses a parent has two years from their 18th birthday to file suit against the liable parties.
Example: On February 2, 2020, John’s mother was hit and killed by a drunk driver on the I-5 freeway in Anaheim, California. John was only 14-years-old at the time his mom passed. He was born on January 1, 2006. Normally, the statute of limitations would start to run from the date John’s mother passed, which is January 1, 2020.
In that case, John would only have until February 2, 2022, to file suit for his wrongful death claim, or else he would lose his right to do so forever. However, because John was a minor at the time his mother was killed, the 2-year statute of limitations doesn’t start to run until his 18th birthday, which is January 1, 2024. In other words, John has until January 1, 2026, to file his wrongful death claim against the drunk driver who killed his mother.
If the wrongful death claim is against a public entity, the Government Tort Claims Act says that you only have 6 months from the accrual of the claim to file it with the appropriate government agency. However, a minor can submit an application for permission to file a late claim within a reasonable time not to exceed one year after the injury. The public entity has 45 days to grant or deny your claim, although it will almost always be denied. You’ll then have 6 months from the date of the denial to file a lawsuit.
For example, on April 4, 2020, a married man gets struck and killed by a speeding driver at the Countrywood Lane and Robinwood Circle intersection in Irvine. The City of Irvine has been made aware of an unusual amount of accidents at this intersection, but publicly refuses to implement any safety measures like add speed bumps, lower the speed limit, or add stop signs. Arguably, there may be a public entity claim against the City of Irvine. The married man’s spouse would only have until October 4, 2020, to file a claim against the City of Irvine.
As you can see, statutes can quickly become complicated for wrongful death claims near Orange County. Be sure to consult with an attorney right away.
How Much Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Worth in California?
Depending on the circumstances, wrongful death claim settlements typically range from several hundred thousand to many millions of dollars. In general, they tend to be worth more than most other claims.
The value of any given wrongful death claim will depend on a number of different factors, including the following:
- The age of the deceased
- The earning potential of the deceased
- Whether the deceased shared any fault for the accident
- Whether the at-fault party is in an individual, corporation, or public entity
- The policy limits the at-fault party is insured for
It’s also useful to take a look at wrongful death verdicts that are made public in California. In 2019, 15 of the top 50 verdicts in California were wrongful death claims according to Topverdict.com. This means that wrongful death claims make up about 30% of the highest jury verdicts even though fatal car accidents (3,898) only make up a little over one percent of all car crash injuries (276,823) and an even smaller percentage of all personal injury claims.
In addition, the top 20 wrongful death verdicts in California for 2019 ranged from $4 million to as much as $60 million. I think it’s safe to say that wrongful death claims are some of the most valuable claims that exist in personal injury, as it should be when you lose a loved one.
Who Pays for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
You might be wondering how you could possibly afford to pursue the at-fault party for a wrongful death claim. You don’t have to. The plaintiff’s attorney generally fronts all of the costs associated with pursuing a wrongful death claim. Those costs are then recouped out of the final settlement or verdict.
You might also be wondering where this settlement money is coming from. Usually, the defendant’s insurance company is responsible for paying. This is especially true when an individual is at-fault for your loved one’s death. But if the at-fault party is a business entity or government agency, then they’ll be directly responsible for paying your settlement, or their insurance carrier will help pay a portion of it.
Who Gets the Money in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In California, it’s largely up to the deceased victim’s family members and heirs to decide how to divvy up the settlement money.
Ideally, everyone would agree to split up the settlement money evenly and call it a day. But oftentimes, one family member was more financially dependent on the deceased than another. For example, a deceased father’s 13-year-old child might have been more financially dependent on him than his 26-year-old child was. In that case, maybe it doesn’t make sense to evenly distribute the settlement proceeds.
If there isn’t any consensus among the rightful heirs as to how to apportion the money, they may consider mediation or even binding arbitration to help decide.
What’s the Difference Between Wrongful Death and a Survival Action?
There are notable differences between a wrongful death claim and a survival action, including the following:
Who Brings the Claim
A wrongful death claim is brought by the deceased person’s family members, such as a spouse and children. In contrast, a survival claim is brought by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate.
The Purpose of the Claim
The purpose of a wrongful death claim is to compensate the deceased person’s family for their loss. In contrast, the purpose of a survival action is to compensate the deceased person’s estate.
When You Can Bring the Claim
A wrongful death claim can be brought anytime someone dies as a result of someone else’s wrongful conduct. In contrast, a survival claim can only be brought when the deceased person survived for some period of time after the accident before eventually succumbing to their injuries.
The Damages Available
A wrongful death claimant can seek reimbursement for the loss of the deceased person’s love and companionship. In contrast, the damages available in a survival claim are limited by California Code of Civil Procedure 377.34 “to the loss or damage that the decedent sustained or incurred before death, including any penalties or punitive or exemplary damages that the decedent would have been entitled to recover, had the decedent lived”. However, it does “not include damages for pain, suffering, or disfigurement.”
Whereas punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death claim in California, they are available in a survival action.
You should also know that oftentimes a wrongful death claim and survival claim are brought simultaneously. As you can probably tell, these claims can quickly become confusing and complex, which is why you should hire an experienced Orange County wrongful death lawyer to help you navigate this area of law.
Orange County Wrongful Death Statistics
Orange County wrongful death rates tend to be lower than a lot of other areas in the country, but they’re still problematic.
In 2017, there were 261 fatal car accidents in Orange County, California according to LiveStories. The chances of dying in a car accident in Orange County are below average when compared to the rest of the state of California and the U.S.
Males in Orange County are more than twice as likely as females to die as a result of a car accident, which is consistent with the rest of California and the United States as a whole. One-third of car crash deaths involve drunk driving in some capacity, and nearly one-third of car crash deaths involve speeding. This is consistent with what we see personally.
Contact an Orange County Wrongful Death Attorney
As wrongful death lawyers, we regularly represent the interests of victims who have been treated unfairly by an insurance company. The Crockett Law Group is committed to handling your wrongful death claim from start to finish and will fight to make sure that you receive the money you deserve. If you have lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligence, contact us online or call (800) 900-9393 for a free consultation with a wrongful death attorney.