The Governor of California signed S.B. 447 into law which enables plaintiffs to pursue recovery of non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, in wrongful death lawsuits.
Prior to the enactment of S.B.447, plaintiffs were effectively precluded from pursuing recovery for damages related to the victim's pain, suffering, or disfigurement when the case involved a deceased plaintiff (i.e., a wrongful death lawsuit). S.B. 447 modifies Section 377.34 of the California Code of Civil Procedure to no longer prohibit the pursuit of non-economic damages.
The new law immediately impacts cases that were granted a preferential trial date prior to 2022, or if a lawsuit is filed between January 1, 2022, and January 1, 2026.
Background of the Legislation
S.B. 447 was introduced by State Senator John Laird (D), a Bay Area native who serves Northern California counties, and was co-sponsored by the Consumer Attorneys of California (“CAOC”) and Consumer Federation of California (“CFC”). The Civil Justice Association of California (“CJAC”), which traditionally represents defendants' interests, initially opposed the bill, but they withdrew its opposition in exchange for a four-year sunset provision. S.B. 447 was originally permanent when drafted.
How Wrongful Death Cases Work in California
In many cases involving wrongful death, survival actions are filed by the estate while the victim's family files a companion wrongful death lawsuit. Family members can pursue recovery of damages for the harms and losses they suffered as a result of the loss of their loved one. In addition, the estate can pursue damages for the losses the victim could have pursued if they lived.
Damages recovered through survival actions are paid into the estate and passed on to the heirs of the decedent. In wrongful death claims, the surviving family members that prevail are directly compensated for their own harms and losses. By allowing the plaintiffs the ability to recover damages for the victim's non-economic losses, the total awards could increase.
Potential Impact of the New Law on Wrongful Death Lawsuits
The impact of S.B. 447 will likely reverberate for years into the future as cases are decided under the new directives set forth in Section 377.34 of the California Code of Civil Procedure. Many people anticipate the new law could potentially lead to an overall increase in the size of jury verdicts returned for plaintiffs in wrongful death lawsuits. Though, it is important to emphasize the fact that the new law only allows for the pursuit of non-economic damages. It does not guarantee an award of non-economic damages. The decision on whether or not to award non-economic damages to a deceased plaintiff remains with the jury.
It is unclear whether the statutory modifications associated with S.B. 447 will expire, be extended, or made permanent after 2026. If the modifications become permanent, the surviving family members and estates of people who lost their lives in preventable accidents will have the opportunity to fully recover all of the harms and losses that both they and the victims suffered because of the careless actions, or inactions, of a defendant.
Have Questions? Contact an Experienced Contra Costa County Wrongful Death Lawyer
If you lost a loved one in an accident caused by someone else's carelessness in San Francisco, San Jose, Lafayette, or anywhere else in California, we are so sorry for your loss and want to do all we can to hold the irresponsible party accountable. Take action today by contacting The Geller Firm to schedule a no-cost, confidential case review.