In California, punitive damages are not awarded in a wrongful death case. Compensation is limited to economic and non-economic damages. What does this mean for a family who has lost a loved one due to a horrific turn of events? A great deal, if the decedent’s support was cut short due to an intentional, malicious act. Let’s examine the difference between compensatory and punitive damages and when the latter is allowed after a wrongful death.

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Types of Damages

There are two broad types of damages in wrongful death: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are those that cover the economic loss the family suffered due to the decedent’s demise. Limited non-economic damages are also available.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for abhorrent actions and dissuade others from repeating the egregious acts. Punitive damages are recoverable in a survival action only.

Economic Damages in a Wrongful Death Case

Economic damages are one of the two types of compensatory damages, which are meant to compensate the victim or their family in a wrongful death lawsuit. Economic damages include loss of wages now and in the future, funeral and burial expenses, the cost of household duties previously performed by the deceased and loss of inheritance.

Non-Economic Damages in a Wrongful Death Case

Non-economic damages are less quantifiable. They include loss of consortium and loss of shared interests. In a personal injury case, the plaintiff can also ask for damages related to pain and suffering but these are not allowed in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are directed against individuals or entities who are found to have committed particularly egregious conduct that caused another person’s death. Generally, punitive damages are awarded when the wrongdoer’s action is purposefully and knowledgeably careless or negligent. They go beyond the compensatory damages.

Why Are Punitive Damages Not Allowed in a Wrongful Death Case?

Punitive damages are awarded to the victim for the loss he or she suffered before death. They do not compensate the family for their loss. Thus, if the victim dies immediately after an accident, punitive damages are not allowed and a wrongful death lawsuit commences.

However, if the individual lives, even for a short time before dying, a survivor action claim is possible, filed for the decedent by a representative of the estate. As the name indicates, the personal loss the decedent experienced survived their death.

Punitive damages are allowed in a survivor’s action as opposed to a wrongful death lawsuit.

Basis of Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are not based entirely on the level of economic losses the person suffered and the degree of reprehensibility involved. They are granted in addition to the compensatory damages the family receives in a wrongful death lawsuit, and a wrongful death lawsuit can be conjoined with a survivor’s action. To do this, the conduct exhibited by the defendant must be fraudulent, malicious or oppressive under California Civil Code 3294.

The Basic Elements of Punitive Damages

The basic elements needed to prove punitive damages are:

  • Malice: An intentional injury that is inflicted upon the victim to harm is considered malicious. Another is an act that shows an apparent disregard for another person’s safety or rights, such as drunk driving with the explicit knowledge that another individual can be killed.
  • Fraud: This involves intentionally concealing or misrepresenting something for personal gain. The action can lead to economic injury.
  • Oppression: This act causes serious, cruel hardship with no regard for the other person’s rights.

Proving Reprehensible Acts

The law requires that fraud, oppression or malice must be proven in a clear and convincing manner. In most personal injury cases, the claim is proven by the preponderance of the evidence. This means that the chance it is true is greater than it not being true.

Clear and convincing proof is more than this. It does not reach the level of beyond a reasonable doubt as found in a criminal case. However, the clear and convincing proof is higher than that shown by the preponderance of the evidence.

Asking for Punitive Damages>

The plaintiff must request punitive damages at the outset. However, the exact amount cannot be requested. There is no one way for a jury to determine the extent of punitive damages, but there are some considerations they must take into account:

  • The extent of the egregious act
  • The amount the jury believes will punish the defendant and will be capable of preventing future instances of such conduct.
  • Whether the financial loss the person experienced will be reasonably compensated by the punitive damages.

In California, punitive damages are not capped as they are in other states.

Free Case Review with a Wrongful Death Law Firm in Los Angeles

David Azizi understands the pain and grief families feel when a loved one dies needlessly and too soon due to another’s negligence. When egregious harm causes the decedent’s death, they want justice for their loved one’s death. By filing a wrongful death lawsuit and, in some cases, a survival action, they reach that goal. David fights for the family’s right to do this and will be there with them every step of the way. Call (800) 991-5292 to begin the process, and schedule a free case review. You can also make contact with us online.