Filing wrongful death case after fatal auto accident

Losing a loved one in a fatal car accident is a devastating experience. While no amount of money can bring back your deceased family member, it is believed that holding the negligent party responsible for the wrongful death and requiring the payment of financial compensation may provide the sense of closure needed to move forward.

What Is Considered a Wrongful Death?

In California, a wrongful death is defined as a death which occurs as the result of the negligence of another person or entity. Wrongful death cases are civil cases, which means that they proceed separately from any criminal charges. For example, if someone is charged with vehicular manslaughter due to drunk driving, the criminal case by the state is pursued separately from a wrongful death civil claim. Guilty parties can be held both criminally and civilly liable for the same incident, under appropriate circumstances.  In many wrongful death cases, there is no criminal charges brought against the negligent party, but criminal charges are not necessary to pursue a wrong death claim.

Wrongful death claims can arise from many circumstances, but fatal car accidents are a common source of this type of civil litigation. Recent National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows that car accident deaths were up 7.7 percent in 2015, with vehicle accidents claiming the lives of an estimated 35,200 people.

Only a select number of individuals can file a wrongful death suit. In the vast majority of cases, these individuals include a surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children. If there is no spouse, domestic partner, or a child, the deceased person's parents or siblings can file if they would be eligible to inherit property based on intestate succession laws. Financially dependent stepchildren, putative spouses, children of putative spouses, and parents may also be eligible to file a wrongful death claim. 

Who Can Be Held Responsible?

Every case is different, but there are several possibilities for who can be named as defendants in a wrongful death case arising from a fatal car accident. For example:

  • The negligent driver,
  • The employer of an at-fault driver, if he or she was driving the vehicle while on the job at the time of the accident
  • The owner of a vehicle who allowed another person to operate vehicle that caused the collision
  • The provider of alcohol to an intoxicated driver under the age of 21
  • The vehicle manufacturer, if the vehicle was not safe to drive
  • An auto repair shop, if faulty repairs caused the collision
  • A government entity if there is a defect in the road or a dangerous condition with the road.

Wrongful death claims often involve insurance companies who negotiate these claims due to the negligence caused by those they insure. 

Depending upon the circumstances, there may be more than one person, or entity responsible for to cause of the wrongful death, thus requiring a determination of percentage of fault and financial responsibility for the loss of life.

What Type of Damages Can You Receive?

When you file a wrongful death claim, there are certain financial damages available to the surviving family members.

The surviving family members can receive damages for:

  • The financial loss of household services provided by the deceased
  • Anticipated loss of financial support to each individual claimant
  • The loss of companionship, affection, relations and emotional support from their deceased loved one
  • Expenses paid for by the individual due to the death of their loved on, such as funeral expenses

A wrongful death claim is different from a claim by the estate of the deceased person.  Both claims may exist at the same time depending on the circumstances. 

What Is the Statute of Limitations?

When faced with the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one, the grieving process takes precedence. It's understandably difficult to think of taking legal action when you're still mourning the loss of a beloved family member. However, obtaining representation as quickly as possible is often essential to a successful wrongful death claim. 

California law allows a two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims arising from car accidents.  A much shorter time applies if a government entity is involved.  You must file a case within the applicable statute of limitation or you will forfeit your right to compensation.

If you are a resident of Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, or anywhere in Southern California, call (888) MY IE LAW or (909) 481-0100 to schedule a consultation with the skilled wrongful death lawyers at Inland Empire Law Group. 

David Ricks
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Rancho Cucamonga Personal Injury Lawyer Serving the Inland Empire Community