Understanding Wrongful Death in California

In the 2002 film Minority Report, a trio of psychics could predict murders before they happened. When someone asked their caregivers why the psychics could not predict assault, rape, or other crimes, the police officers in charge basically responded that the psychics could only predict murder because no other crime tore the fabric of life greater than the untimely death of a person.

For that reason, homicide is nearly always punishable in criminal court, and wrongful death is nearly always actionable in civil court. What are some common causes for wrongful death, and what compensation is available to the victims?


A few years ago, poisoning overtook motor vehicle crashes and became the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. In 2014, over 47,000 people died in such incidents, and the vast majority of them were accidental.

That number has doubled since 2000, largely because prescription drugs are so much more powerful today than they were just a few years ago. Specifically, painkillers and antidepressants contain very strong ingredients that are highly addictive. Moreover, especially with regard to painkillers, some physicians order their patients to take these drugs regularly whether they are experiencing discomfort or not. These medicines also have a number of well-documented side effects that can cause serious injury or even be fatal. While many poisoning incidents occur because the medicine is either mis-prescribed or misused, unplanned drug combinations cause even more deaths. Although it is illegal in California, doctor-shopping is a serious problem. Finally, in a few cases, patients have serious allergic reactions to certain kinds of medicine.

Thanks to technology, medical history is much easier to verify. Until a few years ago, new patients could tell doctors almost anything, and it was quite difficult for them to verify that information. Now, most medical records are online, so after just a few clicks, physicians know why kind of medicine to prescribe, as well as the proper dosage.

Failure to follow this protocol can be considered a breach of the duty of reasonable care, especially since the doctor-patient relationship is a fiduciary one that involves a high standard of care.

Vehicle Crashes

Most drivers have a duty of reasonable care; common carriers, like bus drivers, Uber drivers, and other commercial operators, have a higher duty to the passengers they transport and the owners of the cargo they haul.

Impairment is one of the leading causes of vehicle crashes, and the Global Road Safety Partnership has identified three main types of impairment. They are:

  • Drugs: As mentioned earlier, many prescription drugs have side-effects, like drowsiness, that make it unsafe to drive a motor vehicle. Additionally, many over-the-counter antihistamines and sleep aids have similar dangerous side-effects.
  • Alcohol: After just one drink, many people are impaired for legal purposes, and each drink thereafter essentially has a multiplying effect.
  • Fatigue: Lack of sleep affects the brain much like alcohol, and most old tricks, like turning up the air conditioner or radio, are not particularly effective and may actually make the problem worse.

Many times, impairment comes about because of a combination of two or more of these items; for example, a person may take a painkiller after a long day of work and then drink alcohol at happy hour.

In some other cases, drivers are well-rested and sober before they start driving, but their driving habits violate the duty of reasonable care. Traffic laws, like obeying the speed limit, maintaining a proper distance between vehicles, and following traffic control devices, are in place for driver safety. The same thing goes for distracted driving, like using a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle.

Job Injuries

The constantly-expanding population in the Golden State also means ongoing construction. Particularly in melting pot states like California, English is not the first language of many workers, so there may be issues in properly using safety equipment. Moreover, in competitive environments, a few dollars is often the difference between making money and losing money, and some companies are tempted to put profits above people and cut corners when it comes to safety.

The result is an often dangerous environment for California construction workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that most workplace deaths could be eliminated by addressing the “fatal four:”

  • Falls: Almost four in ten construction site deaths occur when the victim falls from a height, and nearly all these falls occur because of missing or misused safety equipment.
  • Electrocution: At busy worksites, it is often difficult or impossible to tell the difference between a live wire and a dead one.
  • Struck By: There is a lot of truth in that old adage that a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building can crush a person’s skull on the ground.
  • Caught Between: Power lifters make construction work much easier, but they are also incredibly dangerous if they malfunction.

Injured workers are normally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits; in some cases, injured victims may sue outside workers’ compensation and obtain additional damages.

Legal Issues

California has a wrongful death statute that allows family members to obtain compensation for their economic losses, including funeral and burial expenses, the decedent’s medical bills, and lost future wages. Many attorneys partner with financial professionals to determine the extent of future economic damages. Additionally, plaintiffs may recover compensation for loss of consortium (companionship) and other noneconomic losses. There is generally a two-year statute of limitations in these cases.