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What’s the Difference Between Personal Injury and Wrongful Death?

mourning/ woman mourning a deceased loved one on a graveyard

Personal injury law and wrongful death law are closely related. Different states have different rules about how wrongful death claims work. In some states, wrongful death claims are essentially personal injury claims brought by surviving family members when an accident leads to the death of the victim. In other states, like California, wrongful death claims have their own specific rules and requirements. Below, we discuss the difference between personal injury and wrongful death claims in California. If your loved one was killed due to someone else’s negligence in Southern California, call a dedicated Los Angeles wrongful death lawyer for help.

What is a Wrongful Death Claim?

A personal injury claim is a legal claim for damages brought by an injured party against the party that caused their injury. Personal injury claims typically involve four elements: Duty, breach, causation, and damages. The “duty” depends on the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant when the incident occurred, and breach of that duty is often shown by proving negligence. For example, every driver owes a duty to everyone else on the road to drive carefully and in accordance with traffic laws. A negligent driver is a driver who breaches that duty; if they cause someone else harm by getting into an accident, then they have breached their duty, hurt the plaintiff, and given rise to damages.

A wrongful death claim is similar, except that the injured party was killed in the event. A wrongful death claim arises in California when someone dies as a result of the legal fault of someone else. When someone’s negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional wrongful act leads to the death of someone else, then surviving family members or the estate of the decedent can sue either on behalf of the deceased party or for their own damages, depending on the jurisdiction.

Who Can Bring a Claim?

Typically, the injured victim will be the party to sue for personal injury. If the victim lacks capacity (for example, if they are an underaged minor or the accident left them in a coma and unable to sue on their own behalf), then a parent or other representative may be able to sue on their behalf.

If a person is deceased, they obviously cannot sue on their own behalf. Different states have different rules about who can bring a wrongful death claim. In California, a wrongful death claim can be brought by:

  • A surviving spouse or domestic partner
  • Children of the decedent
  • Grandchildren, if the decedent’s children are also deceased
  • Other minor children and other parties who were financially dependent on the deceased
  • Other parties who would be entitled to the deceased’s property under California’s intestacy laws (i.e., more distant relatives, depending on what relatives survived the deceased)

What Damages Are Available?

In a personal injury case, the injured party can recover certain types of economic and noneconomic damages. Economic damages include the direct, measurable monetary consequences of an injury, including medical bills, lost wages, and loss of future earning capacity. Noneconomic damages include things like pain and suffering and emotional distress, which are harder to quantify but are no less real for accident victims.

Wrongful death plaintiffs, likewise, can recover economic and noneconomic damages. Those plaintiffs are seeking damages on their own behalf in California, however, so their damages are tied to the harm they themselves suffered, rather than that suffered by the decedent. They can recover economic damages including:

  • Financial support the decedent would have contributed to the family
  • Loss of gifts or benefits they would have expected to receive from the decedent
  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • A dollar value of the household services the decedent would have provided (cooking, cleaning, repairs, etc.)

Wrongful death plaintiffs can also recover noneconomic damages including:

  • Loss of guidance, protection, companionship, comfort, care, affection, and moral support from the decedent
  • For the surviving spouse or domestic partner, loss of enjoyment of intimacy with the decedent

In addition to a wrongful death suit brought by family members, a representative for the estate of the deceased can bring a “survival action.” A survival action essentially allows the estate to bring a legal claim that the decedent would have been able to bring had they survived. A survival action can cover damages that would have been covered in a personal injury action, including medical costs and pain and suffering incurred as a result of the accident but prior to death.
If you were injured or your loved one was killed due to someone else’s negligence in Los Angeles, you need experienced, effective legal help to protect your rights. Reach out to a California personal injury attorney at the Morris Law Firm to find out if you have a claim for damages. Morris Law Firm will give you a personalized evaluation and help you figure out your legal rights and next steps. Call us today at 747-283-1144 for a fast response or fill out our online contact form to schedule your free consultation.

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