Filing a Wrongful Death Claim After a Car Accident


Losing a loved one in a car accident is an incredibly tragic and life-altering experience. The emotional trauma and financial burden that follow can be overwhelming, leaving families struggling to cope with their loss.

If someone else’s negligence or wrongful act caused the car accident, the surviving family members may file a wrongful death claim to seek compensation for their losses. This process can be complex, which is why seeking guidance from a car accident lawyer is crucial.

Continue reading below to learn about the process of filing a wrongful death claim after a car accident in California, including:

  • What constitutes a wrongful death claim
  • Who can file
  • The damages that may be recovered
  • The steps involved in the legal process

Understanding Wrongful Death Claims in California

A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit brought by the surviving family members of a person who died due to the negligence, recklessness, or intentional act of another party. 

In California, wrongful death claims are governed by the Code of Civil Procedure Section 377.60. This statute allows specific individuals to seek compensation for the damages they have suffered as a result of their loved one’s untimely death.

Comparative Negligence in California Wrongful Death Claims

California follows a pure comparative negligence rule, which means damages can still be recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit or claim even if a loved one was partially at fault for the car accident. 

However, the damages awarded will decrease by the percentage of fault attributed to the deceased person.

How Long Does it Take to Resolve a Wrongful Death claim?

The length of time it takes to resolve a wrongful death claim can vary significantly depending on the complexity of the case, the strength of the evidence, and whether the case settles or goes to trial. 

Some claims may resolve in a matter of months, while others can take several years. Your attorney can provide a more specific estimate based on the unique circumstances of your case.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim in California?

In California, the following parties can file a wrongful death claim:

  1. The deceased person’s surviving spouse or domestic partner
  2. The deceased person’s surviving children
  3. If there is no surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children, the deceased person’s parents may file a claim
  4. If there are no surviving parents, the deceased person’s siblings may file a claim
  5. If none of the above parties exist, anyone who would be entitled to the deceased person’s property by intestate succession may file a claim, such as grandparents or other relatives

Proving Negligence in a Car Accident Wrongful Death Claim

To succeed in a wrongful death claim, the plaintiffs must prove that the defendant’s negligence or wrongful act caused the death of their loved one. 

Negligence is the failure to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm to another person.

In a car accident, examples of negligence may include:

  • Speeding or driving too fast for conditions
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Distracted driving, such as texting or eating while behind the wheel
  • Failing to obey traffic laws, such as running a red light or stop sign
  • Reckless driving or engaging in dangerous maneuvers
  • Failing to properly maintain the vehicle, leading to mechanical failures
  • Driving while fatigued or drowsy

Building Your Wrongful Death Claim

To prove negligence, four key elements must be proved:

  1. Duty: The defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased person. All drivers must operate their vehicles safely and follow traffic laws.
  2. Breach: The defendant breached their duty of care by engaging in negligent or wrongful behavior.
  3. Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty directly caused the car accident and the resulting death of the plaintiff’s loved one.
  4. Damages: The plaintiffs suffered damages as a result of their loved one’s death, such as medical expenses, funeral costs, lost income, and loss of companionship.

Evidence in a Wrongful Death Claim

To support a wrongful death claim, plaintiffs must gather and present evidence that demonstrates the defendant’s negligence and the resulting damages.

Examples of evidence that may be used in a car accident wrongful death claim include:

  • Police reports and accident scene documentation
  • Eyewitness statements
  • Photos and videos of the accident scene, vehicle damage, and injuries
  • Medical records and autopsy reports
  • Expert testimony from accident reconstruction specialists, medical professionals, and economists
  • Cell phone records, if distracted driving is suspected
  • Vehicle maintenance records, if mechanical failure is suspected
  • Toxicology reports, if drunk or drugged driving is suspected

Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim

In California, the average wrongful death settlement can vary greatly depending on the specific circumstances of the case. However, here are some average numbers for different types of damages in a wrongful death claim:

1. Economic Damages:

  •  Medical expenses: The average cost of medical treatment before death can range from $50,000 to $200,000 or more, depending on the duration and complexity of the treatment.
  • Funeral and burial costs: The average funeral and burial costs in California are around $7,000 to $12,000.
  • Loss of expected income and financial support: This varies significantly based on the deceased person’s age, occupation, and earning potential. The average lifetime earnings for a 25-year-old can be around $1.5 million to $2 million, while for a 50-year-old, it may be around $500,000 to $1 million.

2. Non-Economic Damages:

  • Loss of love, companionship, and other non-economic factors: These damages are more subjective and harder to quantify. In California, there is no specific cap on non-economic damages in wrongful death cases. The average non-economic damages awarded can range from $500,000 to $3 million or more, depending on the case’s unique factors and the jury’s discretion.

Actual settlement amounts can vary significantly based on the specific details of each case, such as:

  • The age of the deceased
  • Their earning capacity
  • The circumstances of the death
  • The jurisdiction where the claim is filed

Some wrongful death settlements in California have reached tens of millions of dollars in cases with egregious circumstances or involving high-earning individuals.

The Wrongful Death Claims Process

Filing a wrongful death claim can be a time-consuming process, but understanding the steps involved can help plaintiffs navigate the legal system more effectively.

1. Consult a Wrongful Death Attorney

The first step in filing a wrongful death claim is to consult with an experienced attorney who handles these types of cases. An attorney can help plaintiffs understand their legal rights, assess the strength of their case, and guide them through the claims process. Most wrongful death attorneys offer free initial consultations and work on a contingency fee basis, meaning they only collect a fee if they win the case.

2. Investigation and Evidence Gathering

Once retained, the wrongful death attorney will begin investigating the car accident to gather evidence and determine liability.

This may involve:

  • Reviewing police reports and accident scene documentation
  • Interviewing eyewitnesses and first responders
  • Obtaining medical records and autopsy reports
  • Consulting with expert witnesses, such as accident reconstruction specialists or medical professionals
  • Analyzing cell phone records, vehicle maintenance records, or toxicology reports, if relevant

3. Filing the Wrongful Death Claim

After gathering sufficient evidence, the attorney will file a wrongful death claim on behalf of the plaintiffs.

This typically involves sending a demand letter to the at-fault party’s insurance company, outlining the facts of the case and the damages sought. The insurance company will then have an opportunity to respond to the demand letter and negotiate a settlement.

4. Negotiations and Settlement

In many cases, wrongful death claims are resolved through out-of-court settlements between the plaintiffs and the at-fault party’s insurance company.

The plaintiffs’ attorney will negotiate with the insurance company to seek a fair settlement that compensates the family for their losses. If a satisfactory settlement cannot be reached, the case may proceed to trial.

5. Litigation and Trial

If negotiations are unsuccessful, the attorney may file a wrongful death lawsuit in court. During the litigation process, both sides will engage in discovery, which involves exchanging relevant documents and information, and may also involve depositions of key witnesses. 

If the case goes to trial, the attorney will present evidence and arguments to a judge or jury, who will then decide the outcome of the case and the amount of damages to be awarded.

Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims in California

The statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death claim in California generally gives you two years from the deceased person’s death to file a lawsuit.

However, some exceptions apply to this rule, such as:

Consultation between lawyers and clients discussing statute of limitations and legal services.
  • Plaintiffs must file a claim against a public entity, such as a government agency, within six months of the death.
  • When the defendant is a medical professional or healthcare provider, plaintiffs have up to three years from the death to file a claim, depending on the circumstances, 
  • If the defendant is a medical professional or healthcare provider, the plaintiffs may have up to three years from the date of the death to file a claim, depending on the circumstances.

Given these circumstances, it’s important to consult with a knowledgeable wrongful death attorney as soon as possible to make sure your claim is filed within the appropriate time frame.

For Help With Your Wrongful Death Claim, Call the Powerhouse Team at Wilshire Law Firm

At Wilshire Law Firm, our experienced personal injury attorneys are dedicated to helping people like you navigate this difficult time and secure much-needed compensation.

Contact us today by calling (213) 335-2402 or filling out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation with one of our skilled wrongful death attorneys. We will listen to your story, answer your questions, and provide the guidance and support you need to pursue justice for your loved one.

Remember, you don’t have to face this difficult time alone.

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By submitting this form, you agree to receive telephone calls and text messages at anytime, which include hours outside of business hours (8:00 a.m. PST - 9:00 p.m. PST). This is so that we may reach you as soon as possible in order to consult on your potential case.