When and How Punitive Damages Apply in Wrongful Death Cases

Losing a loved one is always devastating, especially when you believe someone else’s gross negligence or misconduct led to the tragic accident. Courts typically award punitive damages to deter the offender from similar behavior in the future. Keep reading to learn more about punitive damages in wrongful death cases.

Punitive vs. Compensatory Damages

Most of the damages a wrongful death victim’s family may recover fall under the definition of compensatory damages. As the term implies, the purpose of these damages is to reimburse the bereaved family for their loss. Compensatory damages may cover the following:

  • Medical bills for any treatment the deceased person received prior to death
  • Funeral expenses
  • Any pain and suffering the victim experienced before their passing
  • Financial support the decedent’s dependents have lost
  • Loss of consortium or companionship

In contrast, the goal of punitive damages (a.k.a. “exemplary damages”) is to punish the wrongdoer and set an example to discourage other potential offenders from similar acts. California courts usually award punitive damages in wrongful death cases involving violence, egregious negligence, malicious misconduct, or fraud.

Examples of Situations Where Punitive Damages Would Apply

Some offenses for which a court might issue punitive damages include:

  • A hit-and-run accident that occurs while the offender drives with a suspended license
  • Drunk or grossly reckless driving in a school zone with previous DUI convictions
  • Intentional malicious assault
  • Knowingly distributing a harmful or dangerous product
  • Neglecting to remove a known hazard from premises that house young children

In negotiating compensatory damages, the defendant’s financial situation is largely irrelevant. However, when awarding punitive damages, the jury will typically consider the offender’s assets. High-net-worth wrongdoers may expect to pay higher amounts in punitive damages. In California, punitive damages rarely surpass 10% of the offender’s net worth, although the state imposes no official cap.

Pathways to Claiming Punitive Damages

California laws allow the deceased victim’s family to claim punitive damages through two possible pathways:

  1. A wrongful death lawsuit only in cases of previously proven felony homicide — i.e., a situation where a court already convicted the defendant of killing the victim in a separate criminal case
  2. Filing a survival action claim on behalf of the deceased person’s estate

In any situation but a case of an existing felony homicide conviction, the family would only be able to claim punitive damages through survival action, not a wrongful death lawsuit.

Technically, state law restricts survival action claims to situations where the deceased suffered economic losses before their death. Economic loss can be hard to prove in situations involving sudden and instant death. However, even minor economic damages, like torn clothing or a damaged purse, could warrant a survival action claim and allow the victim’s family to recover punitive damages in wrongful death cases.

Wrongful Death vs. Survival Action Claims

As the deceased victim’s spouse or family member, you can choose whether to file a wrongful death or survival action claim. Both legal pathways have pros and cons.

A survival action claim would allow you to seek punitive damages. You could also recover tangible losses like medical expenses, property damages, and lost wages that occurred prior to the victim’s death. The main drawback of a survival action is the lack of coverage for posthumous and noneconomic losses. Thus, with a survival action claim, dependents can’t seek compensation for funeral costs, pain and suffering, or loss of the victim’s support.

Wrongful death claims provide coverage for a wider range of tangible and nontangible damages, like medical expenses, burial costs, and loss of consortium. However, a wrongful death claim usually doesn’t include the option of pursuing punitive damages. An experienced wrongful death lawyer can help you choose your case’s optimal course of action.

Calculating Punitive Damages

There is no set formula for calculating punitive damages in wrongful death cases. The court will look into your case and decide at its discretion whether the guilty party’s actions were sufficiently negligent, reckless, malicious, or oppressive to merit punitive damages.

The jury will examine the sequence of events and consider factors like the level of physical harm or torture the victim experienced before death. Only clear, compelling evidence of highly reprehensible conduct will prompt the court to award punitive damages.

Moreover, the law states that punitive damages should be “comparatively proportionate” to the tangible damages the victim suffered. Most jurisdictions will cap punitive damages at about four times the compensatory damages the family would collect, with some exceptions.

For instance, in 2013, an L.A. jury awarded $150M to a 13-year-old girl who witnessed her family burning to death in a freeway accident four years prior. The family’s SUV collided with a truck that unlawfully parked on the side of the freeway with no lights on. The truck driver and his employer were liable in this tragic case.

Deadlines for Seeking Punitive Damages

California’s statute of limitations imposes a two-year window for wrongful death lawsuits. For a survival action, the timeframe is six months after the victim’s death or two years since the injury, whichever date comes later.

Because of the time limit, you should take action as soon as possible. Contact an experienced wrongful death attorney who will:

  • Assess your case and let you know whether you may claim punitive damages
  • Suggest an efficient legal strategy that will boost your chances of recovering damages
  • Fight for your rights and provide powerful, compelling representation at trial
  • Take the stress out of the legal process so you and your family can focus on your well-being during this difficult time

Khalil Law Group Will Defend Your Legal Rights After Your Tragic Loss

Do you have more questions about punitive damages in wrongful death cases? Contact us at Khalil Law Group. Our dedicated and empathetic team will help you understand your legal options after losing a family member and fight to help you win the highest possible compensation.

Call (714) 617-7870 or fill out our online form to schedule a free consultation with an experienced wrongful death lawyer in Newport Beach, CA.

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