According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle crashes claimed an estimated 20,160 lives nationwide from January to June 2021. Fatal crashes leave the family members and domestic partners of the deceased emotionally devastated and often financially distressed. Indeed, many are negatively affected by a wrongful death caused by negligent or reckless motorists. Below, we explain who can bring lawsuits arising out of fatal car crashes.
The Nature and Aim of Wrongful Death Statutes
Wrongful death claims owe their existence to statutes. The California legislature decides who may file a wrongful death claim, the grounds, and the damages that wrongful death plaintiffs may recover.
In deciding who is eligible to sue for wrongful death, the legislature generally – but not strictly – follows the California intestate succession act. This statute establishes who inherits from a decedent’s estate when the decedent did not have a will. As you’ll read, the intestate succession law determines eligibility to file a wrongful death lawsuit in some cases.
You may qualify if you were married to the victim at the time of death. The fact that you and your spouse may have been separated or had a prior divorce or annulment before the current marriage does not defeat your standing.
What if the Marriage Was Not Valid?
To be eligible as a spouse, your marriage must have been valid. Supposed marriages may in fact be void or voidable if either party was married at the time of the ceremony, either party lacked the mental capacity to marry, or was underage. In these cases, you may still sue for the purported spouse’s wrongful death if you reasonably believed that your marriage was valid. In these cases, you must prove that you depended upon the decedent for your support. Evidence such as the decedent was the sole person employed.
California law treats as domestic partners those “who have chosen to share one another’s lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring..” You may prove your domestic partnership through a “Confidential Declaration of Domestic Partnership” form filed with the California Secretary of State or through evidence that you and the decedent lived together, shared finances, and traveled together.
Biological and adopted children of the deceased person normally qualify to bring a wrongful death suit.
Standing becomes more complicated if a child’s father was not married to the mother at the time of death. To be sure, the fact that you were not born into the marriage of your parents does not automatically bar you from suing for the wrongful death of the father.
If you’re in such a situation, you need evidence that the father held you out as his child. This may include your living with him, regularly engaging in activities with him, or that he represented to medical providers, schools, or others that he was your child. Also, a court order of paternity while the father was alive will also suffice.
What If You Are a Stepchild?
Stepchildren may sue for the wrongful death of the stepparent upon proof of financial dependency on the deceased stepparent. To have standing as a stepchild, you need to show that you relied upon the stepparent to provide you necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. This standard also applies to others who must show financial dependence on the decedent to sue for wrongful death.
As a parent, you may recover if there is no surviving spouse, child, or grandchild of your deceased child. This follows California’s intestate succession laws that allow parents to inherit from a child who dies without a will if there is no spouse, child, or grandchild of the decedent. The fact that you depended on your child for financial support qualifies you even if your child was married or had children or grandchildren.
Brothers and Sisters
Under California’s intestate succession laws, siblings inherit if there are no children, grandchildren, spouses, or parents. In that case, you may sue for the wrongful death of your sibling.
Minors Living With the Decedent
A minor who lived with the decedent for 180 days before the death may sue if the minor was dependent financially on the decedent. Such people need not necessarily show that they were the children of the deceased crash victim.
What Damages Are Recoverable for Wrongful Death?
If you qualify to file a wrongful death action, you may recover the economic and non-economic damages you suffer from the loss of your loved one. The economic losses include:
- Future earnings from employment
- Income or other benefits from economic opportunities
- Gifts that the decedent would have made
- The reasonable value of the decedent’s household services, such as child care and housekeeping
- Funeral and burial expenses
Generally, your non-economic damages include the loss of companionship, support, care, and affection. If you’re a surviving spouse, you may also recover the loss of intimacy and other marital consortia. Surviving children may include the loss of guidance from the parent in non-economic damages.
Survival Actions Distinguished from Wrongful Death
In a wrongful death action, you seek compensation for your own losses caused by a loved one’s death. Survival actions focus on recovering the decedent’s losses arising from the crash. These claims start during your loved one’s lifetime. When your parent, spouse, child, or other loved one dies, the personal representative assumes the role of the claimant to recover the damages sustained by the decedent.
Generally, plaintiffs in survival actions cannot recover pain and suffering and other non-economic harms. However, California has temporarily removed this limitation for lawsuits filed between January 1, 2022, and January 1, 2026, and for actions filed before January 1, 2022, where a court grants a “trial preference.” In this form of “fast-tracking,” the court conducts a trial within 120 days after one or all of the parties moves for the preference.
The heirs inherit the compensation that the decedent would have otherwise received. You may become an heir through being named in a will or through the California intestacy statute.
For more information, please see our wrongful death page here.
Martin Gasparian is the founder of Maison Law, a California Personal Injury Law Firm. Martin is a graduate of Georgetown University Law School and has been practicing law in California 2004. His practice focuses on helping injury victims know their rights and recover just compensation.