California has inherent time limits for initiating civil actions, including wrongful death, called statutes of limitations. When negligent or wrongful conduct ends a person’s life, the surviving immediate family members or beneficiaries of the deceased’s estate have a right to register a wrongful death claim against the liable party. The process must be initiated on time because if the time limit elapses, it would be difficult to receive compensation as your claim would be denied on procedural technicalities.

Remember that even if you register a claim only one day after the time limit for the suit has elapsed, you may lose your right to compensation or fail to get a hearing on the merits of your claim. Fortunately, at the San Diego Personal Injury Law Firm, wrongful death claims fall under our practice area. We can help you comply with the statutes of limitation for this claim, suspend or toll the deadline, to ensure you receive compensation for the loss of a loved one.

The Theory of Legal Liability

What you need to understand about wrongful death is that it is a civil rather than a criminal action. Penalties like incarceration, fines, and possible loss of civil rights can happen in a criminal case.

On the other hand, a civil case’s outcome is the compensation of the plaintiffs’ loss, financial constraints, and emotional pain stemming from bereavement. 

The person filing the claim is called the claimant or plaintiff, while the one being sued is the defendant. In the case, the plaintiff files the lawsuit to hold the defendant legally liable for the deceased’s wrongful death. The dead are also known as a decedent.

In this case, legal liability means that the claimant carries the burden of proof and must demonstrate that the defendant’s particular action or failure was why the deceased lost his or her life. Keep in mind that this is a civil procedure, which is why the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. If you are a claimant in such a scenario, you must prove the following theories of liability:

  • The defendant failed to exercise caution or professional conduct in a situation where they were reasonably or professionally required to act accordingly.
  • Negligence per se theory. A defendant acts negligently in a context where they are expected to act as per the laws.
  • Vicarious or employer liability. It focuses on situations where employers are held liable for failing to control subordinates’ actions or employees in the course of employment.
  • Breach of warranty theory occurs when the defendant sells a product that doesn’t meet the terms and conditions of sale, design, or manufacture, causing the wrongful death.
  • A marketing or advertising company fails to warn consumers about the potential hazards, giving them false security that results in wrongful death.
  • Strict liability where the manufacturer or distributor of harmful products is responsible for the harm or fatalities caused just beyond the initial customer.

It is your responsibility to prove the claim under these legal liability theories. However, this depends on the circumstances of your case.

General View of California Wrongful Death Claim

A wrongful death stems from various circumstances like medical malpractice, criminal activity, accidents, or occupational exposure to chemicals. Often, the deaths occur because of someone else’s negligence, intentional misconduct, or recklessness. Note that when a wrongful death occurs due to criminal activity, you don’t need to show the defendant’s criminal intent to be held responsible.

However, in circumstances where the defendant acted with intent, and the court finds out, it’s the plaintiff that assumes the burden of proof and must prove to the court that the defendant had reasonable belief their actions could harm another person. Perhaps that defendant didn’t believe their actions would result in the demise of another person. In such cases, defendants may be charged with manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter, although it must be demonstrated that they were aware their actions posed a grave danger.

Suppose death stems from the defendant’s recklessness; the claimant must show that the defendant acted with disregard for others’ safety.

Some of the wrongful acts that might result in wrongful death include:

  • Car crashes
  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Assault and battery
  • Abuse or neglect of senior citizens
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Medical malpractice
  • Drowning
  • Murder
  • Manslaughter

CCP 377.60 allows the following individuals to register these lawsuits:

  • Domestic partners
  • Surviving spouses
  • The decedent’s grandchildren suppose his or her children are also deceased
  • Stepchildren or other children (that relied on the deceased for not less than 50 percent of their monetary support)
  • Persons that eligible for the deceased’s estate as per the intestate succession statutes

Considering the amount of compensation in wrongful death claims, multiple people with grounds to sue can begin seeking compensation. As per the law, every individual with a legitimate claim should be named in the suit as a claimant or involuntary defendant to qualify for compensation.

When a plaintiff successfully proves their claim, they are awarded compensatory damages. The claimant could also pursue punitive damages if they can prove the defendant acted maliciously. Punitive damages are awarded not to compensate the claimant but to serve as a lesson and deter others from such malicious misconduct in the future. However, it’s worth noting that a wrongful death claim doesn’t include punitive damages.

On the other hand, compensatory damages are awarded to the plaintiff to reimburse them for the decedent’s death. The damages are categorized as either general or special damages. Examples of these damages include but not limited the following list:

  • Doctor bills resulting from the injuries and demise
  • Funeral costs stemming from the death
  • The loss of benefits like health insurance, Social Security, and pension, which the deceased’s family would have continued to enjoy was not for the death.
  • The loss of family birthright
  • Compensation for the pain and suffering plus mental anguish caused by the death
  • The loss of consortium

Take note that these damages will not bring a loved back to life. However, they will help stabilize the claimant financially and provide relief that will help them enjoy life in the absence of the decedent. Damages awarded to provide financial security to the claimant are called economic or special damages. In contrast, those awarded to give relief to the family are called non-economic or general damages. They are more abstract, and it’s difficult to attach definite dollar value. The court’s decision on general damages depends mainly on the damages awarded in previous claims like yours.

Keep in mind that wrongful death claims are overly complicated. For this reason, you should enlist the services of a lawyer or law firm that understands personal injury law.

The Distinction between Wrongful Death Claim and Survival Cause of Action Suit

When the defendant’s negligent conduct results in injuries but the victim survives, you, as the plaintiff, can register a claim as per loss of consortium civil law. The lawsuit means you, as the victim’s domestic partner or spouse, lost companionship or intimacy after your partner or spouse sustained harm due to the defendant’s action or inaction.

Additionally, following CCP 377.30, the estate of the deceased can register a survival cause action lawsuit. Although this lawsuit is similar and usually filed combined with a wrongful death claim, the survival cause action suit often seeks to compensate the estate and not the deceased’s family. In essence, the main difference between these two lawsuits is that the deceased’s descendants file a wrongful death suit while the deceased’s estate registers a survival suit on behalf of the descendants. It is called a survival suit because t of the dead’s right to sue for damages ‘survives’ their real demise.

Also, disparate from the standard wrongful death suit where the court cannot impose punitive damages, a survival suit may imposition these damages. For this reason, the majority of wrongful death claims are accompanied by and run in union with a survival suit.

California Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations

According to CCP 335.1, the limit on the amount of time a plaintiff can take to bring a wrongful death suit against the defendant is two years from the date of the incident that led to the deceased’s demise. For the claim to be successful, one must comply with this procedural rule. Otherwise, the lawsuit will be dismissed on procedural technicalities. However, there are notable exceptions to the law like the discovery rule.

Keep in mind that all California laws have a time limit for filing lawsuits, known as the statute of limitations. Therefore, if, as a claimant, you want to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit, you are limited by time. The theory of legal liability governs the time limit. This law applies in your case and the kind of misconduct that led to the deceased’s death. However, CCP 351.1 provides a time limit of 2 years from the date of death to register a claim. The time limit for filing a wrongful death claim as per this statute is as follows:

  1. Adult Wrongful Death Claim

The primary statute of limitations for adults’ wrongful death stemming from negligence, intentional acts, car accidents, assault or slip, and fall accidents is two years.

  1. Wrongful Death Claim where the Claimant is a Minor

When a minor is registering a wrongful death lawsuit after the parents’ death, there is a special rule that applies. Under these circumstances, the child must report the claim two years after turning 18 years. These cases are common where a minor survives the deceased parent. Even if the child is 12 years old, they should wait for six years until they turn18 years for the primary statute of limitations of two years to start. If two years elapse after turning 18 and the claim is not filed, you lose the right to seek compensation.

Minors are not allowed to file wrongful death claims because the law has a provision for adults only. Besides, the extension is independent of a survival suit, meaning the deceased’s estate can file a claim right after the death. The surviving children of the decedent must wait until they turn 18 to register a lawsuit.

  1. Death Caused by Government Entities

At most, six months after the date of death, you will have to file a wrongful death claim caused by a government entity or employee. The entity outlined in this case can be a government, municipal or county government, federal, or state agency. Keep in mind that this rule applies to both adults and minors.

Instances where a wrongful death claim can be filed against a public agency include:

  • Accidents at a public learning institution
  • A vehicle collision involving a government car
  • An incident of malpractice in a medical facility run by the government
  1. Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Claim

The amount of time you have to register a wrongful death claim can extend to three years from the date of harm in medical malpractice cases. It means the victim’s surviving family has an additional year after the primary statute of limitation lapses to register a claim. These claims often arise when a medical facility or medical practitioner’s negligence or inaction results in the harm that eventually causes a person’s death.

It’s worth noting that if medical malpractice causes a family member’s death, the amount of time for registering a claim can reduce to 12 months or increase to 36 months. This is according to CCP 340.5. The statute further outlines that a family has one year to file a wrongful death suit from when they should have discovered the injuries.

  1. Wrong Death Claim for Asbestos-Related Fatalities

The amount of time for filing a wrongful death claim for death stemming from asbestos exposure is one year. You can register a claim twelve months after the victim’s demise or 12 months from the date you knew or ought to have known that the victim’s death was due to exposure to asbestos.

In light of the above rules, you will realize that the time limit for registering a wrongful death suit depends on your case’s circumstances. These particulars can make a claim very complex hence the reason you need to have a personal injury attorney or law firm by your side. With legal counsel, you can take action quickly and have time to build your claim before the amount of time for filing the claim elapses.

The advantage of retaining an injury attorney’s services is that even after the time limit for registering the claim elapses, you can still file a lawsuit. However, it will not be a piece of cake because the defendant’s attorney can request the court to dismiss the case based on procedural technicalities.

In legal terms, registering a claim after the lapse of the time limit is called an untimely complaint, and judges rarely dismiss these cases independently. They take this action as a retort to the defendant using affirmative defense or petition the court to dismiss the case. Affirmative defense explicitly states that the court should dismiss the wrongful death suit. The decision to deny your untimely complaint or not will depend on the particulars of your case and the kind of defense your injury attorney mounts.

Accrue of Statute of Limitations

There is a significant variance when the time limit for filing a wrongful death suit accrues or begins running. The variation on when the clock starts to tick depends on the case’s circumstances and several factors.

The majority of statutes of limitations in California begin to run on the time of harm. However, in wrongful death suits, the start of the statute of limitations is open to various legal elucidations. When the victim’s death occurs right after an injury caused by the defendant's negligence or inaction, the time limit accrues right away.

On the other hand, if the deceased’s demise stems from cumulative negligence or refusal to act by the defendant over an extended duration, it will be up to your legal team to determine when the defendant’s wrongful conduct or misconduct commenced. Furthermore, they must show when the harm or death was discovered, and the legal terminology for this is the date of discovery. It means the date when the plaintiff became aware of the date of harm or death. The discovery date could also refer to the date the deceased discovered the injury before dying.

In such a case, you could argue that the date of discovery is when the deceased ought to have discovered the harm that eventually results in death. For instance, an employer deliberately exposes employees to hazardous working conditions for several years, which results in injury and, ultimately, the end of an employee(s). A case like this is open to multiple interpretations because an attorney could assert the statute of limitations should begin to accrue when the victim was first exposed to harmful conditions.

The other argument could be that the date of discovery falls in the specific time when the defendant got to know about the exposure that resulted in their demise. The presiding judge will award more compensatory damages depending on the duration the employer exposed employees to the harmful conditions knowingly. The more extended the time of exposure, the more the damages.

Keep in mind that establishing when the time limit accrues is not a simple task. Sometimes you will be required to conduct separate and independent investigations, which involves talking or interviewing the individuals that might have information on the matter. However, some challenges come with independent investigations because entities or individuals being sued might restrict their legal liability and fail to cooperate with your inquiries. If this happens, private investigators will be your way out. You don’t necessarily need to hire one because your injury law firm or attorney will do that on your behalf.

As mentioned earlier, the possible damages are awarded depending on the defendant’s level of negligence or inaction. Therefore, if your legal team can demonstrate an extended neglect pattern by the defendant by mounting strong evidence, you will receive maximum benefits.

Exceptions of Wrongful Death Statutes of Limitations

California CCP 335.1 provides exceptions for the time limit for registering a wrongful death claim called the discovery rule. Under this rule, if the date of harm or death of the deceased is unclear, the law provides the extension of the time limit. The time begins to run when the time or date of death is determined typically through a postmortem autopsy or independent investigation. The judge presiding over the case has the discretion to determine the length of the extension. 

Another exception of this rule applies if the defendant acted with fraudulent or criminal intent or when the affected person has a mental disease or disability. A mentally ill individual cannot file a suit, meaning they are subject to different standards. The law provides that the person must undergo mental health treatment first before they can register a claim. The statute of limitations in such cases is extended until the party recovers.

Other exceptions of the rule were highlighted earlier in this article and apply when filing claims against public agencies or a minor registering a wrongful death suit after a parent’s death.

Whatever the exceptions that apply in your case, it’s critical to reach out to the San Diego Personal Injury Law Firm for legal guidance and strategy. Remember, various exceptions apply to this rule, and the judge presiding over the case gas the final say. It’s up to your attorney to build a strong claim and present evidence to convince the judge why the lawsuit is filed after the time limit has elapsed. If the judge allows the case to continue, the hearing will be based on merit.

Find the Right San Diego Injury Attorney Near Me

The pain of dealing with the loss of a loved one because of another person’s negligence or failure to act is devastating. Registering a suit against the responsible party is the last thing you would want to consider. However, if you believe you have a valid wrongful death claim, don’t hesitate to act because time is core. Start evaluating the lawsuit with the help of an attorney. You can do this by contacting the San Diego Personal Injury Law Firm today at 619-478-4059.