By Shaun Phillips, Esq.
Recently re-popularized by the FX series The People vs O.J., Nicole Brown’s and Ronald Goldman’s family sued Mr. Simpson in civil court for wrongful death shortly after Mr. Simpson was acquitted of charges for murder in criminal court in 1995.
The Browns’ lawsuit was filed by and through Louis Brown, Nicole Brown’s father. Mr. Brown sought damages on behalf of Nicole for medical and related expenses associated with Nicole’s medical treatment, for personal property and for punitive damages. The civil jury awarded the Browns compensatory damages and $12.5 million in punitive damages.
The Goldmans’ lawsuit by and through Ronald’s father, sister and mother, sought damages directly for the loss of the company, presence, companionship, society, comfort, attention, services, guidance and support of Ronald, and for certain compensatory damages. The civil jury awarded the Goldmans $8.5 million in compensatory damages and $12.5 million in punitive damages.
While the circumstances surrounding these wrongful death lawsuits were particularly dramatic, each illustrates the breadth of damages that can be recovered, and which of the decedent’s survivors can recover those damages. These cases also illustrate how the wrongful death action is a lawful vehicle to hold another accountable by seeking compensation for the death of a loved one, and by seeking compensation for the harm inflicted upon one or more of the decedent’s survivors, directly.
What is Wrongful Death?
In California by statute, certain survivors may seek compensation for the death of a loved one, which occurred as a result of the wrongful conduct of another. The statute allows various survivors of the decedent to recover for harms associated with the wrongful death by filing a civil lawsuit for money within two years of the death. There are several questions to ask when considering whether to file a lawsuit for wrongful death including:
(1) does the statute allow the survivor to sue;
(2) was the cause of death wrongful; and
(3) what types of losses may the survivor recover directly, and on behalf of his or her
loved one (as a successor-in-interest)?
First, because a wrongful death action is statutorily created in California, a survivor who wishes to sue must be permitted to sue. The following survivors may bring a wrongful death action:
- a surviving spouse, a domestic partner or a child (or the issue of a deceased child);
- an individual who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate (without a will) succession; or
- a putative spouse, a child of a putative spouse, a stepchild or a parent if each was dependent upon the decedent.
Second, in order for another’s conduct to be considered “wrongful,” the decedent must have died as a result of another’s negligence, recklessness or purposeful act.
Third, the measure of damages in a wrongful death action—as described in the statute—is quite broad, i.e., damages that “under all the circumstances of the case, may be just, . . .” Damages which are generally recoverable in a wrongful death action include:
- decedent’s lost income, both past and future;
- the cost of medical treatment associated with the wrongful death of decedent;
- the financial support the decedent would have contributed to the family during the decedent’s life expectancy (or if shorter, the life expectancy of the survivor);
- the loss of gifts or benefits that the survivor would have expected to receive from the decedent;
- funeral and burial expenses;
- the reasonable value of household services that the decedent would have provided;
- the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support;
- the loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations; and
- the loss of the decedent’s training and guidance.
If you are Thinking About Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Wrongful death actions are complex, not only legally, but also emotionally. Consult a qualified attorney who will not only handle your case with skill, but who understands and appreciates your situation, including the emotions associated with filing a lawsuit in the wake of the death of a loved one.
The Roberts Law Firm is a growing and caring personal injury law firm in Newport Beach, California. The attorneys and staff at the Roberts Law firm focus on providing quality, personalized representation to each client. For more information please contact one of the Roberts Law Firm’s attorneys at (949) 719-6885, or visit their website at www.robertslawfirm.net.
 Note: punitive damages, i.e., those damages assigned to punish the willful and malicious conduct of another, are available only in certain cases.
 Cal. Code Civ. Proc. Sec. 377.61 (2014).