Wrongful Death and the Statute of Limitations

When you lose a family member due to third-party negligence, the clock starts to run immediately on a potential wrongful death claim. Under California law, the victim’s family usually has two years from the date of death to file a lawsuit. Depending on the nature of the case and the parties involved, California’s statute of limitations may yield to the rules of another state.

California Court Forced to Dismiss Fatal Helicopter Accident Lawsuit Due to Minnesota Law

Consider this recent decision by the California Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. The defendant in this case is a California company that manufactures helicopters. The plaintiff is the widow of a man who died while operating one of the defendant’s helicopters. The decedent and the plaintiff were traveling together–the husband was a pilot–between two cities in Minnesota, where they lived. During the flight, the helicopter suddenly lost power and crashed into a lake. The decedent, who could not swim, drowned.

The plaintiff sued the defendant in California state court, alleging that it was responsible for the wrongful death of her husband. The complaint essentially revolves around issues of product liability. In brief, the plaintiff claimed the defendant knew this particular model of helicopter was defective and it failed to warn pilots–including the decedent–of these problems.

Unfortunately, the California courts were compelled to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit because it was barred under Minnesota law. Minnesota law applies to this case because of Section 361 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which is commonly known as a “borrowing statute.” Basically, a borrowing statute means that a court in one state must “borrow” the statute of limitations from another state in deciding whether a case can proceed.

Section 361 applies to any wrongful death case that “has arisen in another state.” Here, the accident occurred in Minnesota, and both the victim and the plaintiff lived in Minnesota. The plaintiff argued that this case actually “arose” in California because this is where the defendant allegedly manufactured the defective helicopter. As the Second District explained, while that argument might work in a product liability case, wrongful death is a special type of personal injury claim that only “does not come into being” until the victim actually dies.

So, why does it even matter whether Minnesota or California law applies to this case? Minnesota actually has a longer statute of limitations–three years–for wrongful death claims than California. The problem is that Minnesota also has what is known as a “statute of repose,” which provides that a wrongful death lawsuit must be “commenced within six years after the act or omission” giving rise to the claim.

This is what sank the plaintiff’s case here. The allegedly defective helicopter was manufactured in 2003, approximately 10 years before the victim’s fatal accident. So, according to the Second District, the plaintiff’s claim is “barred by Minnesota law,” and by extension of the borrower’s statute, also barred in California.

Do Not Wait to Pursue a California Wrongful Death Claim

Deadlines are critical in wrongful death cases. This is why it is important to speak with a qualified Pasadena personal injury lawyer as soon as possible following a serious or deadly accident. Contact the offices of Strassburg, Gilmore, & Wei, Attorneys at Law, today at (626) 683-9933 if you are need of advice and would like to schedule a consultation.

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