Can heirs get punitive damages in a California wrongful death lawsuit?

By April 9, 2019 Law Firm

Heirs of a decedent who died due to someone else’s fault and negligence are entitled to receive compensation for the same. Compensatory damages from a wrongful death action include things like lost wages, loss of future income, pain and suffering, loss of companionship, and the like.

The above compensatory damages are what we know in California as economic and non-economic damages. The first are damages that are relatively quantifiable due to pay slips, medical bills, invoices, etc., that can be added up to derive at a pretty accurate figure. Non-economic damages are those damages that are never really compensated for but is more symbolic in nature: the pain and suffering that comes with the loss of a loved one.

But what about punitive damages in wrongful death cases? Punitive damages are reserved for those at-fault, liable persons or entities who maliciously or outrageously harm another person. The damages are meant to (1) punish the wrongdoer; and (2) prevent future actions of the same. In this sense, punitive damages are not about repaying the victim of his or her expenses or compensating him or her of pain and suffering. Punitive damages are in addition to compensatory damages and are only awarded in rare cases.

So, can they be awarded in wrongful death actions if the wrongdoer’s actions were so outrageous or malicious to deserve punitive damages?

The short answer: no.

The longer answer: in 1981, after a long list of precedent cases, the Court of Appeals of California, First District, Division Four, confirmed in Ford Motor Co. v. Superior Court that punitive damages are meant to be paid to the actual victim, not the victim’s family members. As such, in a wrongful death case, the victim died immediately and, thus, was never able to bring about a claim against the wrongdoer. Further, due to the immediate death, the decedent did not accrue any economic or non-economic losses to him or herself, like property damage or pain and suffering — the losses felt are those of the decedent’s family members.

Is there ever a time in California punitive damages can be awarded after a loved one dies due to the actions of another person or entity?

Yes, but only in survivor actions. These are lawsuits brought on by the decedent’s estate. The idea is this: the victim was injured in the most despicable, malicious way. Before he or she died, she survived for a short time. During this time, he or she can make (through a family member or lawyer) a claim. After the person dies, that claim survives via the decedent’s estate.

That said, there are rare instances where, even when the decedent dies almost immediately, heirs may file a survivor action. In Rufo v. Simpson [(2001) 86 573, 616], the Court held that the decedent’s clothing and property damage that materialized just before he died was enough economic loss to give rise to a survivor action.

The Irony of California Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death & Survivor Cases

In the end, the decedent died — he or she did not survive. It seems contrary to the purpose of punitive damages to allow the latter only in cases where the decedent survived for a short time prior to dying and not allowing punitive damages in cases where the death was immediate. How long it takes a person to die is not at question here, or should not be. At question is the actions — so malicious and despicable — of the at-fault party. It is ironic that his or her actions that lead to immediate death are in a sense rewarded than if the victim survives for a short period.

If your loved one has died due to the horrendous and reckless acts of another person, you deserve just and fair compensation, as well as punishment, served on the person or entity causing the death. At Ledger Law Firm, we make it our duty to help each one of our clients. We will look at your case closely and use our resources to your benefit. Contact us today for a free consultation. You matter. We care.