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Determining damages for wrongful death

Often lawsuits end up being newsworthy because they involve very large verdicts or settlements. When a jury decides in favor of an injured party, the resultant damages can range from one dollar, referred to as nominal damages, to many millions. Before a final judgment of damages is rendered, opposing parties negotiate to settle the matter for a particular amount. In California, when a jury is tasked with determining the amount of damages, several factors are at play. Damages as used in legal proceedings means money; it is a reminder that the purpose of a monetary award is compensation and not gain.

At the end of a jury trial, a judge is required to provide certain instructions on the law to the jury. These instructions are relevant to the claims and related law. The Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) issues those instructions. In CACI No. 3921, examples of economic and noneconomic damages relevant to wrongful death claims are provided, but juries are to be instructed that the damages cannot be the result of their guesswork or purely speculative. Of course, since it is impossible to prove the exact amount of damages, additional instructions are given to aid the jury in assessing damages accurately.

Some economic damages pertinent to a wrongful death case include amounts already paid, including expenses incurred in connection with a funeral or burial. Similarly, if there was a benefit that would have been given by the deceased individual, it too can be included as loss to the person bringing the wrongful death claim. Other amounts are based on the value of future earnings or contributions that would have been made by the decedent during his or her life.

Noneconomic damages relevant to such a case include loss of companionship, support and love. Depending on the nature of the relationship between the claimant and the deceased person, damages for the loss of the enjoyment of sexual relations, assistance, care and even training and guidance may be assessed.

Not every wrongful death in California can be litigated in civil court. As reported by The Porterville Recorder, a judge may dismiss a case if a person died while working, for example.

Also, juries must limit certain damages to what would be reasonable based on the decedent’s life expectancy. This aids the jury in determining by computation the losses of the claimant. In determining their award a jury is not permitted to consider the financial circumstances of the claimant or the sorrow and pain experienced in connection with the death.

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