After the loss of a loved one due to negligence or wrongdoing, you may be entitled to damages through a wrongful death lawsuit. However, you may have many questions about wrongful death claims. After all, how can money ever compensate for the tragic and premature death of someone you love? How much is a wrongful death lawsuit worth? Who can recover compensation and how can it be used?
Every wrongful death case is unique, but you may find it helpful to understand the average wrongful death settlement in California and factors that may affect the value of your claim.
What Is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit is a type of personal injury claim in which surviving family members can seek financial compensation for the damages they have sustained due to the loss of a loved one. Wrongful death claims can be brought when someone dies due to the wrongdoing or negligence of another. These cases may involve traffic accidents, premises liability, medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, workplace accidents, and many other scenarios.
If a wrongful death lawsuit is successful, it may result in a wrongful death settlement between the family members and the at-fault party’s insurance company. If a fair settlement isn’t reached, the case may go to trial and, if successful, result in a jury award.
Types of Damages You Can Recover in a Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death lawsuit in California allows surviving family members to recover compensation for their losses. The type of damages you may recover through a California wrongful death lawsuit settlement include economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages compensate for the financial losses related to the death of your loved one. They may include:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Financial support the decedent would have provided. This includes the calculated future lost earnings the family would have received.
- Inheritances, gifts, and other benefits heirs would have received from the decedent.
- Household services the decedent would have provided the family such as childcare and cooking
- Non-economic damages compensate for losses without an intrinsic financial value. This can include loss of guidance, training, support, affection, companionship, and sexual relations.
California does not allow family members to recover for pain and suffering or punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.
However, most wrongful death claims also involve survival actions. This is a separate legal action that allows for other types of damages. Through a survival action, you may recover the damages your loved one could have recovered in a personal injury lawsuit if they had survived. This includes pain and suffering, disfigurement, and emotional distress. You may also be entitled to punitive damages in some survival actions.
However, these damages can only be recovered if your loved one survived for some period of time after their accident.
Claims involving elder abuse or neglect also allow surviving family members to recover damages for their loved one’s pain and suffering under the California Elder Abuse Act.
As you can see, damages get very complicated when it comes to wrongful death in California. The types of damages available depend on the circumstances, whether your loved one died due to elder abuse or neglect, and whether your loved one suffered losses and pain before death.
Factors that Affect Wrongful Death Settlement Amounts in California
How much can you sue for wrongful death? To calculate the value of your case, your wrongful death lawyer will need to assess the value of your damages. Some damages are easy to calculate such as burial and funeral expenses. Others require the help of financial experts and a persuasive legal argument.
To calculate the lost future earnings your loved one would have provided, some important factors include:
- The decedent’s potential for raises and promotions
- The decedent’s abilities, education, and skills
- The decedent’s age and the number of years they would be expected to work
- Retirement account contributions and benefits the decedent would have received
Calculating the financial value of contributions to the household can be even more complex.
In California, juries are not supposed to consider the following to award damages for wrongful death:
- The pain and suffering of the victim except in some elder abuse cases
- The surviving family’s anguish, grief, and sorrow
- The family’s financial situation
This does not mean jurors are not human and do not allow emotion to play a role in considering damages.
Much of the value of your claim will depend on creating a persuasive argument and as much documentation as possible. Skilled wrongful death attorneys will show that the decedent regularly contributed to providing services to the family, how they contributed to child-rearing and support, special skills and knowledge they contributed to the family, and more. The more persuasive the case, the easier it will be to argue for a higher value for these losses your family suffered.
Average Wrongful Death Settlements in California
It can be very difficult to provide a typical wrongful death settlement. In California, most wrongful death cases are confidential, and records can’t be accessed without permission. This is because most cases settle privately outside of court. With no statistics available and every case based on very unique circumstances, there simply is no such thing as an average wrongful death settlement.
How much money can you get from a wrongful death suit? It is not uncommon for wrongful death settlement amounts to reach millions of dollars. On the other end of the spectrum, a wrongful death claim may settle for just a few thousand.
Only a few types of injury lawsuits and insurance claims have average settlement figures available. This includes medical malpractice and nursing home insurance claims. Insurance companies regularly publish statistics on total and average payouts by state for these claims.
The average settlement for nursing home abuse is $406,000. This does not differentiate between cases involving injury versus wrongful death.
Note that there may be a difference between the average value of wrongful death settlements versus wrongful death awards. You may ultimately recover a larger wrongful death award in California if your case goes to trial. The jury may consider the evidence and find the at-fault party liable for a higher amount than the insurance company would agree to pay outside of court. However, this is not a guarantee.
Taking your case to court can be a time-consuming and expensive process. In some cases, the jury award amount may not be higher than what your lawyer could have negotiated with the insurer. The higher legal costs may even eat up any difference.
The only way to get an accurate estimate of the value of your wrongful death case is through a thorough conversation with a California wrongful death lawyer.
How Are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid Out in California?
The typical wrongful death settlement in California is paid out as a lump sum. Attorney’s fees and court costs will be deducted from the amount and the remainder will be distributed to the heirs. A settlement award may be divided by the court among multiple surviving family members when necessary.
A survival action settlement will be paid out to the decedent’s estate. It can then be used to pay estate debts or distributed based on a will or California intestate succession law.
Sometimes a structured settlement is done which works like an annuity. In this case, the settlement amount (or just a portion) is invested and paid out in regular intervals.
Wrongful Death Settlement and Medicare or Medi-Cal
If your loved one received medical care paid for by Medicare or Medi-Cal, they may seek reimbursement for the expenses from the estate when a wrongful death settlement is paid out.
However, wrongful death settlement payouts are shielded from Medicare because they are compensation for damages to the surviving family members. A survival action, on the other hand, is designed to compensate for damages the decedent suffered before death. This includes pre-death medical expenses that belong to the decedent.
As the beneficiary of a wrongful death settlement, you have no legal obligation to pay for the decedent’s pre-death medical expenses. The decedent’s personal representative does. If the two types of claims are combined, a medical creditor can recover from a portion of the settlement amount that doesn’t include wrongful death damages. This can potentially cause problems if there is an unallocated settlement.
The bottom line? Medi-Cal and Medicare cannot touch wrongful death settlement funds, but they can seek reimbursement from a survival action settlement. Your California wrongful death lawyer will help you understand how medical liens may affect your claim and what to expect.
Are Wrongful Death Settlements Taxable?
According to the IRS, any amount of a settlement or jury award that is “compensatory” is non-taxable. Non-compensatory damages compensate for losses you have already suffered and are not considered taxable income.
Wrongful death suit payouts are generally not taxable income in California. The proceeds you receive through an insurance settlement are never taxable. However, if your case goes to trial and you receive a jury award from a survival action, which is separate from a wrongful death lawsuit, a portion of your award may be taxable. Punitive damages are considered taxable income by the IRS.
Are Wrongful Death Settlements Public Record in California?
Wrongful death settlements are not public records. A settlement is a private agreement between parties. When you accept a wrongful death settlement offer, only the at-fault party, their insurance company, and the people who receive the proceeds will know the amount.
If your case goes to trial, records become public. The amount of a jury award will become public record. However, even if the case goes to trial, it may still be settled outside of court in which case the settlement will be private.
There is no way to state an average wrongful death lawsuit settlement amount in California or estimate the value of your claim without a careful analysis of your case. However, wrongful death lawsuits have the potential to be valued at millions of dollars.
These cases usually involve two types of legal claims and almost always require a persuasive argument and evidence to convince an insurer or jury of the value of damages. It’s crucial to choose a law firm with extensive experience litigating wrongful death cases. Berman & Riedel, LLP has recovered over $100 million for our clients with a special focus on wrongful death and nursing home abuse. Our wrongful death settlements and verdicts speak for themselves. Contact our law firm today for a free consultation with a California wrongful death lawyer who will fight for the compensation your family needs during this emotional time.