Wrongful Death Lawsuits and Dependent Minors

A wrongful death lawsuit differs from the typical personal injury case in that the actual victim is deceased. Who, then, has the right to actually bring the wrongful death claim? That is determined by California’s wrongful death statute, Section 377.60 of the Code of Civil Procedure.

The statute authorizes the deceased victim’s spouse, domestic partner, children, or descendants of predeceased children to maintain a wrongful death claim. In addition, any minor–a person under the age of 18–who resided with the deceased during the 180 days prior to death may also have standing if he or she was “dependent on the decedent for one-half or more of the minor’s support.”

To offer a hypothetical example, let’s say a boyfriend and girlfriend move in together. The girlfriend has a minor son. The boyfriend and girlfriend split the rent but in all other aspects the girlfriend pays for the costs associated with her child. If the boyfriend is then killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, the girlfriend’s son has no standing to bring a wrongful death action because he was not legally a “dependent” of the deceased.

Court Rules Child of Deceased Marine’s Girlfriend May Have Standing to Sue Helicopter Manufacturers

Now let us look at a more complicated example. This is from an actual wrongful death and product liability lawsuit pending before a federal court here in southern California. The victim was a Marine Corps sergeant. He was killed when a helicopter fell on him during a preflight inspection.

The subsequent lawsuit named two companies responsible for the design and manufacture of the helicopter. The plaintiffs are the victim’s daughter and the minor son of his live-in girlfriend. One of the defendants challenged the son’s standing, alleging that he did not satisfy the “dependent” test contained in California’s wrongful death statute.

The key piece of evidence cited by the defendant was the girlfriend’s federal income tax return for the year of the victim’s accident. In the return, the girlfriend listed herself as the “head of household,” which the defendant said proved she paid the majority of his support costs. As the trial judge noted, that is actually not what “head of household” means under the Internal Revenue Code. Rather, it refers to someone who pays more than “half the cost of keeping up a home” during the tax year. That is not the same thing as paying for “one-half or more of [a] minor’s support,” which is the legal standard in the wrongful death statute.

More to the point, the girlfriend testified the victim paid “about 60 percent” of her son’s financial support. The defendant argued the girlfriend was capable of supporting her child without the victim’s support, but the judge said the evidence indicated otherwise–namely that the girlfriend moved in with the deceased precisely due to “financial necessity.” At a minimum, the judge said these were issues for a jury to sort out, so he denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the standing question.

Need Advice From a California Wrongful Death Lawyer?

If you are faced with the sudden and unexpected loss of a family member who provided the bulk of your household’s financial support, you may find yourself lost and unsure what to do next. An experienced Pasadena personal injury and wrongful death attorney can provide you with guidance. Contact Strassburg, Gilmore, & Wei, Attorneys at Law, if you have lost a family member due to a third party’s negligence and need immediate legal assistance.

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