Woodland Hills personal injury lawyer Barry P. Goldberg, on occasion, must meet with families those who have died in car, motorcycle or pedestrian accidents. One of the fundamental questions concerns who has the right to sue in these unfortunate circumstances. In truth, a deceased person has touched the lives of so many and has provided love and support to more than his or her immediate family.
What people do not realize is “In California, an action for wrongful death is governed solely by statute, and the right to bring such an action is limited to those persons identified therein.” (Jackson v. Fitzgibbons (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 329, 334.) Put another way, “[b]ecause the right to sue for wrongful death damages is strictly a creature of statute and exists only so far and in favor of such persons as the Legislature has declared [citation], ‘standing’ among multiple claimants is determined by statutory rank.” (Nelson v. County of Los Angeles (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 783, 789.) The wrongful death statute vests standing in the following persons or a personal representative on their behalf:
“The decedent’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 377.60 (a); see Gordon v. Reynolds (1960) 187 Cal.App.2d 472, 474. However, either an administratrix or heirs may sue for wrongful death, but not both.
The Probate Code provides that, absent a surviving spouse, domestic partner, or issue, the decedent’s intestate estate passes “to the decedent’s parent or parents equally” (Prob.Code § 6402 (b)) or, “[i]f there is no surviving … parent, to the issue of the parents” (Prob.Code § 6402 (c))—in other words, to the decedent’s siblings. Surviving heirs are “those who outlive the decedent.”(Chavez v. Carpenter (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1433, 1441.)
Because of the complexity on who can sue for Wrongful Death, a family should probably not try to handle the case on their own. This may avoid disputes and hard feelings. An experienced Wrongful Death attorney can help navigate the statutes and minimize internal family disputes based upon a Wrongful Death recovery.