Basics of a California Wrongful Death Case Explained by Orange County Attorney

Understanding a wrongful death claim begins with the realization that a wrongful death action involves that the lfinancial losses payable to the survivor, not money to be paid into the will or trust of the person who died (the decedent). Any lmoney recoverable by the decedent belong in the decedent’s estate and are disbursed by the deceased’s will, trust or if there is no will or trust by operation of California law.

Understanding the basics of a wrongful death case, as it applies to the family member left behind, also starts with the understanding of the word wrongful.  The word wrongful generally means that the person died due to the failure of another person to be careful.

For the survivor to recover in a wrongful death claim, there are several other elements which must exist before a wrongful death case can be successfully accomplished. They are as follows:

  • The person who died must have been a live person and not an unborn child.
  • The person bringing the claim is a member of the class of persons authorized to recover money, such as the deceased’s parents, children, spouse or domestic partner.
  • The actions of the person who was not sufficiently careful must have been the legal cause of the death of the decedent.
  • The losses suffered by the deceased’s parents, children, spouse or domestic partner must be compensable (payable) under California law.

Compensable (Payable)losses include:

  • a. Loss of direct financial benefits.- This means the amount of money or things the decedent would have provided the survivor. It includes the necessities of life, such as food, clothing and shelter. It also includes any financial contributions the deceased would have given the survivor, such as education, cars or other financial gifts.
  • b. Loss of services, advice or training. An example of this loss would be the reasonable cost of having someone do the household duties of cooking, washing or cleaning which a spouse or parent might have done.
  • c. Loss of love, companionship, comfort, affection, society, solace and/or moral support. If the survivor can show a close relationship with the deceased, even if there is no financial loss, the survivor may still be entitled due to the loss of these things.
  • d. Funeral expenses.

Non compensable losses include:

  • a. The survivor’s grief, sorrow and mental suffering. It is assumed that the survivor will be experiencing grief and sorrow due to the loss of a loved one. That grief and sorrow is not payable, however, as part of wrongful death claims.
  • b. Punitive damages. (Punishment for malicious conduct money) Even if it is a punitive damages case, a wrongful death claimant can not recover punitive damages against the person who caused the death.

As can be seen from the above list of losses, the death of a wage earner who is contributing money to the support of the survivor is the most valuable type of  claim.  This generally means that the death of the family bread winner will have considerably more financial value than the death of a non-bread winner.

The death of a non bread winner may have value, however, if the relationship of the survivor with the deceased was a close one. Proof of this type of close relationship serves as proof of the value of the loss of love, companionship, comfort, affection, society, solace and/or moral support the survivor is experiencing.


If you wish to discuss a wrongful dearth claim please feel free to call me at my office phone number of 949-496-7000.  I am glad to speak with you, at no charge and with no obligation, to see if I can provide you with more information and be of help to you.

John Burns

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