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The California wrongful death statute allows a claim for compensation to arise when one person wrongfully causes a death. A statute of limitations sets the deadline by which you must take the defendant to court.

The general wrongful death statute of limitations in California is two years from the date of the victim’s death.  Remember, it is the date of death that matters, not the date of the accident. Many exceptions exist, however.

The statute of limitations for wrongful death in California works like a stopwatch. It begins running on the date of the victim’s death, and it runs (in most cases) for two years thereafter. An exception, however, can “toll” the statute of limitations clock.

Tolling the statute of limitations is like turning off the stopwatch temporarily and then turning it back on again when a particular  event occurs. The effect of tolling is to extend the statute of limitations deadline.

Why Do Statutes of Limitations Exist?

The main reason that statutes of limitations exist is that  evidence tends to deteriorate over time. Imagine being sued for damages ten years after a car accident, for example. By that time, the only witness who could have exonerated you may have passed away or moved out of state. Long delays in filing a lawsuit also raise doubts about the sincerity of the claim.

California Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations: The Exceptions

Several exceptions exist to the general two-year wrongful death statute of limitations in California.

Medical Malpractice

In most cases, if medical negligence caused the death of the victim, the statute of limitations deadline is the earlier of:

  • Three years from the date that the malpractice occurred; or
  • One year after, you could have then reasonably gained time to learn of the malpractice.

Remember that in medical malpractice wrongful death claims, the date of the victim’s death does not determine the statute of limitations deadline. 

The Discovery Rule

The statute of limitations is tolled as long as the surviving family members do not know of, and cannot be expected to know of, the victim’s death. It begins running again when family members discover, or should discover, the death of the victim.

The Defendant Is a Government Entity

In many cases, the defendant is a government entity. Medical malpractice at a public university medical center, for example, or a dangerous condition on public property may have killed the victim. In this case, the statute of limitations deadline can expire as soon as six months after the victim’s death . 

A Minor Sues for the Death of a Parent

The statute of limitations clock does not start ticking if the plaintiff is a minor (under 18) suing for the death of a parent. In this case, the statute of limitations clock begins ticking on the plaintiff´s 18th birthday, and it expires on the plaintiff´s 20th birthday.

What Happens If You Miss the Statute of Limitations Deadline

If you miss the statute of limitations deadline, your claim is essentially dismissed unless an exception applies. It is dead not only in court but at the settlement table as well. After all, your only leverage in settlement negotiations is your right to sue the defendant for damages. Once you lose this right, the defendant has no incentive to settle with you.

Don’t Sacrifice Your Wrongful Death Claim on a Legal Technicality

Pursuing a wrongful death claim is like walking through a minefield. Don’t try it alone. At Farzam Law Firm, our lawyers have decades of experience helping people just like you. Call us at 866-692-0074 or contact us online for a free consultation. 

Author Photo

Joseph Farzam

Mr. Farzam attended Santa Monica high school and worked at McDonald’s and local coffee shops to support himself. Although he worked 2 or 3 jobs, he valued education greatly and earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Northridge in biology, and attended the prestigious Pepperdine University School of Law. He graduated with high marks and passed the California bar exam on the first try. Mr. Farzam has received the coveted titles of Super Lawyer, Los Angeles Magazine’s Top Lawyers, and has received The Litigator Awards.  He is a proud member of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA) and California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA).

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