When someone you love dies unexpectedly, life comes to a grinding halt. The days pass as they usually would, but everything around you slows down. Before you know it, a year has gone by.
If your loved one’s death was the fault of someone else’s negligence, then you might have a wrongful death case in California. But do you need to walk out of the funeral home and straight into the courtroom? Not necessarily.
The wrongful death statute of limitations is usually two years.
Here’s what you need to know before you file your case.
Each state sets its own wrongful death statute of limitations, but like most personal injury cases, the general rule is two years. The wrongful death statute of limitations in California is also two years.
What does this mean?
It means that you often have two calendar years from the date of your loved one’s death to file a lawsuit. You don’t need to make it into court or accept a settlement during that time.
However, some states start the clock upon the “date of discovery.” The date of discovery is the date you learn about the damage, but not necessarily the time that the damage occurred.
Determining the start and end of the statute of limitations is tricky. You likely need a lawyer to figure out how long you have to bring a case and whether you have a suit to bring at all.
Legally-speaking, a wrongful death occurs when someone dies as a result of the misconduct or negligence of another person. It is a civil action that allows the deceased’s surviving members to seek compensation and justice, even if there was no crime related to their loved one’s death.
For the case to qualify as wrongful death, it must meet the following conditions:
By someone in the estate, we mean a person named as a beneficiary in their estate. For example, if a man dies as a result of negligence, then his wife can sue as his behalf as his estate’s beneficiary. His cousin, who is unnamed in the estate, generally can’t sue even if his wife declines.
A distant family member will struggle to bring a suit in most cases unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Wrongful deaths can occur almost anywhere, including:
If the person who caused the death had a duty of care to the deceased, and they breached that duty of care, which caused the death and the damages, then you likely have a wrongful death case.
Those who sue over a wrongful death can often request three types of damages;
Economic damages can include loss of income, loss of inheritance, medical bills, funeral expenses, and attorney’s fees. These are unnecessary losses or costs that you have receipts and hard figures for.
Non-economic damages are often pain and suffering, e.g., loss of companionship, PTSD, or anxiety. These often outweigh the economic damages because they usually represent a multiple of the total economic damages. However, they can also include the pain and suffering the deceased suffered before their death (or a survival claim).
A judge may award punitive damages when the negligence or behavior that caused the death was particularly egregious. These are common when the death could be considered a crime, but the burden of proof is too low to find a conviction or if the criminal conviction doesn’t reflect the severity of the damage.
For example, if your loved died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver with three previous DUI convictions and who blew a high blood alcohol content at the scene, you might receive punitive damages.
You can’t recover punitive damages in specific cases, such as against the government.
However, if your suit is the product of an elder abuse case against a nursing home, you can seek three times the ordinary damages.
Because the origins of wrongful death lawsuits can be so vastly different, there’s no set timeline for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Some of the factors that contribute to the time it takes include:
Once you have legal representation, a firm can give you a more concrete timeline once you initiate your suit.
As long as you file it within the civil court system in two years, then the length of the lawsuit isn’t impacted by statutory rights.
Losing someone unexpectedly can cause your world to grind to a halt. Before you know it, months have passed, even if you feel stuck in place. At the same time, if your loved one died as a result of wrongful death, the clock is ticking.
In most states, the wrongful death statute of limitations is two years, but it can start when you find out about the harm, not necessarily when the injury is inflicted.
If you do choose to file a wrongful death claim, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later. A lawyer can help you determine whether you have a case and how to pursue it.
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