General Damages In A Wrongful Death Case Under California Law

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Claims for damages in a wrongful death case in California can include economic and non-economic damages.  Non-economic damages are often referred to as general damages.  They represent the intangible losses to the plaintiff as a result of the loss of the relationship with the decedent.

In California, general damages in a wrongful death case do not include the pain and suffering or emotional distress of the decedent, nor do they encompass the plaintiff’s grief or sorrow associated with the death.  Damages to a heir in a wrongful death action is “for personal injury to the heir.”  (Quiroz v. Seventh Ave. Center (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1256, 1264.)  Thus, in a wrongful death action, general damages are awarded to the plaintiff for the “value of the decedent’s society and companionship.”  (Id. at 1263.)  This includes, among other things, the loss of “love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support.”  (California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI), 3291.)  Where evidence of significant general damages is presented in a wrongful death case, but the “general damages awarded are small,” California courts can grant a new trial for failure to award adequate damages.  (Adams v. Hildebrand (1942) 51 Cal.App.2d 117, 118-199.)

The elements of general damages in a wrongful death are some of the most profound and valuable things in life.  “Love” is something that, throughout the ages, has been one of the great human motivators, and the love of a spouse or a child is among the most meaningful things a person can have in life. Companionship, caring, assistance, affection, and protection from a close family member are critical human needs.  Moral support and guidance, depending on a person, all have enormous value to a person’s life.  These elements of damages are deep and raise questions about what is most important in life.

Providing evidence of the value of the elements of wrongful death damages requires, thought, planning, and skill.  It is important early on to identify witnesses who knew the decedent and plaintiff, and can testify as to the relationship between them and the effect decedent’s death had on the plaintiff.   Friends, family members, teachers, co-workers can all provide invaluable testimony about traits of the decedent that enriched the relationship with the plaintiff.  Details and stories or anecdotes which demonstrate the love, support, and companionship, that the decedent provided to the plaintiff are important.  Specific examples of how the death effected the plaintiff, including things the plaintiff used to do with decedent that he or she now does alone, can be powerful. Getting witnesses to remember and tell you about those emotionally rich memories often can only been done by spending significant time speaking with different family and friends, getting them to talk about the decedent, and drawing the stories out.  Cards, letters, photos, video and other such materials that demonstrate one of the traits at issue also help paint a compelling picture of the relationship.

The goal is to present evidence that paints an accurate picture of the fullness and depth of relationship between the plaintiff and the decedent.  This requires significant preparation and marshalling of evidence.  If done correctly, however, in the right wrongful death case, general damages can be enormous.