Can I Recover Punitive Damages in a California Wrongful Death Case?

In California, regardless of how terrible the circumstances of an accident victim’s death might be, that victim’s family will not be able to recover punitive damages from a negligent party with a claim for wrongful death. The state limits the available recovery in wrongful death claims to economic and non-economic damages only. This does not mean, however, that punitive damages will never be available when an accident victim dies as a result of another party’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. If the accident victim suffered some economic loss as a result of another party’s negligence before his or her death, the victim’s representatives might have a claim for punitive damages in a survivor action. 

For more than 25 years, the wrongful death lawyers at Ellis Injury Law in Los Angeles have helped the families of California accident victims to recover the largest available damages awards from negligent parties whose misconduct has caused the death of a beloved family member. If the facts of a case show an opportunity to claim punitive damages through a survivor action, we will pursue that claim as vigorously as is possible. 

What is the difference between a wrongful death claim and a survivor action? 

A victim’s family members can file a wrongful death claim to recover their direct economic and non-economic damages when an accident results in a fatality. Those damages include the funeral expenses that the family incurred plus the value of the services, financial support, companionship, and guidance that the victim would have provided if he or she had not died.  

The personal representative of the victim’s estate can file a survivor action to recover damages that the victim suffered between the accident and his or her death, including medical expenses, lost wages, the value of the victim’s pain and suffering, and, if the facts justify the claim, punitive damages. All damages from survivor actions are paid to an accident victim’s estate for distribution to heirs. Where a wrongful death claim and a survivor action arise from the same accident, a wrongful death attorney might consolidate the claims in a single lawsuit. 

How do punitive damages differ from economic and non-economic damages? 

Economic and non-economic damages are intended to reimburse the expenses that someone faces when another’s party’s negligence results in losses and injuries. These damages will make the injured party whole and put him or her in the position that he or she would have been in if the accident did not happen. Punitive damages are intended to punish a negligent party for willful or wanton conduct. As such, punitive damages are not directly connected to an injured party’s losses but are instead designed to deter egregious conduct or extremely careless action or inaction by imposing severe civil financial penalties on a negligent party. 

Why does California law preclude an accident victim’s family from recovering punitive damages in wrongful death claims? 

A California state court of appeals in 1981 analyzed and explained the difference between wrongful death and survivor actions and why punitive damages claims are allowed in the latter but not the former. One of the key distinctions is that wrongful death claims are established by State statute, while survivor actions are based on general principles of tort law that allow an injured party to recover damages from a negligent party. The 1981 court opinion suggested that the legislature was concerned with the prospect of excessive damages awards in wrongful death cases if punitive damages were allowed because of a jury’s likely emotional reaction to the death of an accident victim.    

This distinction provides little comfort to southern California families that are dealing with the accidental death of a family member. A knowledgeable and experienced Los Angeles wrongful death lawyer will help the family to manage their trauma by seeking the best opportunity to recover all available damages from a negligent party, including punitive damages if facts of the victim’s death justify filing a survivor action.  

Call Ellis Injury Law for a no-fee consultation

When you need assistance and advice on how to proceed after your beloved family member has passed away following an accident caused by somebody else’s negligence, please see our website or call Ellis Injury Law for a no-fee consultation with a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer about how you can recover the largest available damages award to compensate you for your losses. We represent Southern California accident victims, their estates, and their families in wrongful death and survivor actions and all types of accident and injury cases.