Wrongful Death And Punitive Damages Under California Law

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Under California law, a wrongful death claim brought by heirs of a decedent can seek damages for economic losses and noneconomic damages associated with the loss of the relationship.  An heir suing for wrongful death, however, cannot recover punitive damages under California law.  (Ford Motor Co. v. Superior Court (1981) 120 Cal.app.3d 748, 751.)  This is true regardless of how despicable or malicious the conduct was that caused the death.

The only way to recover punitive damages in California in a death case is through a survivor action on behalf of the decedent’s estate.  (California Code of Civil Procedure §377.34)  However, a survivor action, and any related punitive damage claim, can only be pursued where the decedent sustained an economic loss before death.  The economic loss giving rise to a survivor action is often lost wages or medical expenses, but it can be any other economic loss the decedent had before death. (County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 292, 304.)  But some economic loss to decedent prior to death is a necessary precondition to a survivor action and a punitive damage claim.

The requirement that the decedent, or estate, suffer an economic loss in order to bring a survivor action and punitive damage claim is most difficult where an accident or event results in immediate death.  Under those circumstances, there are no lost wages or medical expenses before death.  Nevertheless, even minor economic losses, like property damaged during death, can give rise to a survivor action and a punitive damage claim.  Thus, case law has held “decedents’ clothing and personal property damaged during the homicides” is sufficient economic loss for a survivor action, and associated punitive damage claim.  (Rufo v. Simpson (2001) 86 Cal.app.4th 573, 616.)

Although punitive damages in a death case can only be pursued if the decedent suffered an economic loss before death, where such facts exist, California recognizes the importance of punitive damages.  Thus, California courts have emphasized “the state has an extremely strong interest in being able to impose sufficiently high punitive damages in malicious-conduct wrongful death actions to deter a ‘cheaper to kill them’ mindset.”  (Romo v. Ford Motor Co. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 738, 761.)

Punitive damages generally must bear a proportional and reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages awarded in a case.  (Bardis v. Oates (2004) 119 Cal.App.4th 1, 17.)  As noted above, however, in a survivor action, the economic loss is often minimal.  Moreover, in a survivor action, there is no ability to recover for the decedent’s pain and suffering or other general damages.  (California Code of Civil Procedure §377.34.)  Thus, the compensatory damages available in a survivor action may frequently be very limited.  Because of this, California case law has held that “death actions present an example of the type of extraordinary case,” where higher punitive damages are warranted.  (Romo, supra, 113 Cal.App.4th at 761.)  Thus, where punitive damages can be pursued in a death case, the proportionality inquiry focuses on “the harm to the deceased victim, not merely to compensatory damages awarded.”  (Id.)

Under California law, punitive damages can be claimed in a death case, pursuant to a survivor action, where the decedent suffered an economic loss before death.  Even minor economic damages to the decedent “can be the springboard for substantial punitive damages” under California law.  (Romo, supra, 113 Cal.app.4th at 616.)