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Recovering damages for wrongful death in California

For many decades after California became a state, it relied on the English common law to decide cases involving personal injury and death caused by the negligence of another person. Under the common law, the right to sue for damages was extinguished by the victim's death. As judges and legislators across the county began to appreciate the unfairness of this rule, statutes were passed to permit survivors to seek damages for what came to be called "wrongful death."

In 1872, the state legislature enacted the first statute that created a cause of action for "wrongful death." The statute has been amended several times, but its basic effect remains unchanged. The statute defines a number of categories of persons who may seek damages for the death of a person caused by "the wrongful act or neglect of another." The most obvious category of claimants includes the decedent's surviving spouse, a domestic partner, children and the issue of deceased children. A similar category includes persons who were dependent upon the decedent, including a putative spouse, children of the putative spouse, stepchildren, and parents. The most significant amendment of the statute was the 1992 provision allowing domestic partners to sue for wrongful death.

Damages in a wrongful death action include damages that, "under all the circumstances of the case" may be just." These damages can include lost income, loss of companionship, medical expenses and funeral expenses. The exact amount depends heavily on the age of the decedent, the age of the claimants and the nature of their relationships with the decedent.

Anyone who has lost a loved one in an accident that may or has been attributed to the fault or wrongful act of another may wish to consult an attorney who specializes in such cases. A knowledgeable lawyer can provide a helpful evaluation of the facts of the case and an estimate of the likelihood of recovering damages.

Source: California Legislative Information, "Code of Civil Procedure Article t, Wrongful Death," accessed on March 26, 2016

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