A wrongful death cause of action is a statutory claim providing compensation for specified heirs of the decedent for the loss they suffered as a result of the decedent’s death.
In order to show that a wrongful death occurred, a plaintiff must plead:
- That the defendant committed a wrongful act;
- That such wrongful act proximately caused the death of another; and
- That there are survivors of the decedent on behalf of whom action can be brought to compensate them for losses resulting from a decedent’s death
The second element of proximate causation requires the plaintiff to prove that the death was caused by the defendant’s wrongful act or neglect, i.e., the wrongful act or neglect was a cause in fact of the death. To be a cause, in fact, the wrongful act must be “a substantial factor in bringing about” the death.
Thus, a cause of action for wrongful death will not lie where there is no proximate causal relationship between the act or omission charged and the death complained of.
Where There Is More Than One Cause Of Death
Pleading in a complaint that a defendant’s wrongful act was only one of the causes of the death of the decedent may be more difficult than simply stating the simple facts behind the case.
For example, imagine that a man was walking down a crooked, uneven sidewalk when he tripped and fell on his chest, causing injuries. Several days later, the man passes away from a heart problem. If the man’s heirs sue the city for premises liability, it may be insufficient to simply state that the accident caused the man’s death because the defendant may argue that the heart problem was the primary cause of death.
However, it is not necessary that the defendant’s negligent act is the sole cause of death. Where a defendant’s negligence is a substantial factor concurring cause of the death, the law regards it as a legal cause of the injury. The burden is on the defendant to apportion the extent to which each event caused the death.
Therefore, while the decedent may have suffered one indivisible harm, namely his wrongful death, this harm may have multiple independent causes. The plaintiffs can allege that while the decedent had heart problems that were one cause of the death, the slip and fall was an additional, concurring cause of death. It is then up to a jury at the trial to apportion fault as to each cause of death.
Additionally, the plaintiffs in a wrongful death lawsuit do not need to show that a death was traumatic in origin. If, on account of the depleted and weakened condition of a person caused by an injury, he or she is rendered more susceptible to other forms of illness than if he or she had not been injured, then the injury is the proximate cause of his or her death. The illness or disease is only one of the links in the chain of causation. Therefore, in our sidewalk example from above, the plaintiffs are simply tasked with pleading that the slip and fall caused an injury to the descendant that was one link in the chain of causation and made him more susceptible to passing away from his heart problem.
Pleading Causation Through The Use Of Exhibits
A plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit can plead causation by attaching the Certificate of Death to their complaint. When drafting a Death Certificate, a coroner has the duty to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all violent, sudden, or unusual deaths. (Government Code § 27491.) The coroner can then record the cause of death in the Certificate of Death. (Government Code § 27491.5.) In ruling on a demurrer or motion to dismiss, a court will construe the complaint as a whole, including any exhibit attached to the complaint, such as a Death Certificate. By attaching the Death Certificate with the coroner’s analysis of the causes of death to their complaint, a plaintiff can overcome defendant’s lay analysis of the cause of death in their demurrer or motion to dismiss.
The Certificate of Death, as an exhibit to the complaint, will take precedence over and supersede any inconsistent or contrary allegations in a defendant’s answer, demurrer, or motion to dismiss. The Death Certificate can also clarify any ambiguity in the body of the plaintiff’s complaint. Additionally, to the extent that the Death Certificate is ambiguous and can be constructed in plaintiff’s favor, the Court must accept that construction on demurrer or motion to dismiss.
Ultimately, while a defendant on demurrer may attempt to dispute causation in a wrongful death action, in the right circumstances, plaintiffs can craft their complaint to link the defendant’s wrongful act with the decedent’s death by pleading multiple, concurrent causes of death and by attaching a Death Certificate with the coroner’s analysis of the cause of death.
If you need legal assistance in your wrongful death case in California, don’t hesitate to reach out to Haffner Law.