Survival actions are brought by the personal representative or successor in interest of the deceased person’s estate and seek the types of damages the deceased victim could have pursued in a personal injury claim if he or she had survived. By contrast, wrongful death claims are brought by the surviving family members of deceased victims to recover compensation for the harms they have suffered because of their loved ones’ deaths. The changes to the law affect the types of damages that are recoverable in survival actions brought by the estate for the benefit of the heirs.
Factual and procedural background of the case
Adeal Jabo was a 43-year-old man who was a member of the over-40 Chaldean Soccer League in San Diego, California. The league had contracted with the YMCA of San Diego County to rent the use of a soccer field on the YMCA’s premises for its season on a private basis at a cost of $2,550. Per the agreement, the YMCA agreed to provide soccer balls and an electronic scoreboard to the league to use during its games. It also assigned a YMCA employee to serve as the scorekeeper but did not agree to do anything more.
On September 19, news broke that Jim Carrey is being sued in California for wrongful death by his girlfriend’s estranged husband. Carrey’s girlfriend, Cathriona White, committed suicide in September 2015 by overdosing on several different types of prescription medications. She had married Mark Burton in Las Vegas in 2013 but had dated Carrey for a couple of years afterward without divorcing Burton. Burton is thus her next-of-kin and has made multiple salacious allegations against Carrey in his lawsuit. While a media storm may have ignited, there are multiple reasons why Burton’s case will be very difficult to prove.
Legal standard for bringing a wrongful death claim in California
A wrongful death claim may be made when a person’s death directly resulted from the wrongful actions or negligence of another person. The wrongful death claim may be an intentional tort, which could be filed in the case of murder, or a negligence tort, which could follow a fatal collision.
A recent case in Los Angeles, California (Lani Guillmete, et.al. vs. City of Los Angeles, et. al. – L.A. Superior Court Case Number BC523080) illustrates the responsibility cities hold to take action once they learn that intersections or roadways are in dangerous conditions. If a city does nothing to correct the problem and someone is seriously injured or killed because of it, the city may be held liable to pay damages for the losses caused by the accident.
Background of the case
On Feb. 27, 2013, Thomas Guilmette, a 59-year-old rocket scientist, was riding his motorcycle on Summerland in San Pedro, California. Another man was driving his vehicle on Cabrillo when he tried to turn left onto Summerland, striking the rocket scientist and killing him. The defendant motorist had an obstructed view to his left and was unable to see the scientist because of a row of parked cars. The city did not have any no-parking signs in the area and allowed vehicles to park near the intersection despite the obstruction in vision. The decedent’s wife and son sued the city in a wrongful death civil lawsuit. The motorist was found to not be liable for the accident.
CNN reported today that the Michael Jackson wrongful death case will go to a jury for a decision. The attorneys for the defendant, AEG Entertainment Group (AEG), filed a motion to have the case dismissed but, this was overruled. (See full CNN report here: Michael Jackson trial). The jury trial has been going on since late April of this year and countless witnesses have presented testimony for the plaintiffs (the Jackson family) and the defense, AEG. There is some indication that Michael Jackson’s mother may be recalled as a witness and then both sides will present closing arguments and the jury will render a verdict. In order for the Jackson family to prevail, the jury will need to decide that AEG was negligent in hiring, supervising or retaining Dr. Conrad Murray, who has been criminally convicted of providing a lethal overdose of narcotics to Michael, thereby causing his death. I wanted to explore what California law requires for proving such a case in this post.
What Elements Will the Michael Jackson Jury Need to Decide Were Proven By the Evidence to Hold AEG Liable for Negligence?
As with any trial by jury in the State of California, the jury will be instructed on the law by the judge through pre-approved jury instructions. The principal jury instruction in play for purposes of holding AEG liable for Jackson’s death will be California Civil Jury Instruction 426, which requires the following:
Americans seem very divided, to say the least, about the recent not guilty jury verdict for George Zimmerman related to the death of Trayvon Martin. Indeed, this has been one of the most emotionally charged cases in recent years. One thought I had as an attorney that has handled both civil and criminal cases is that some people may be thinking about the differences between the civil, wrongful death claims brought by Martin’s family and the criminal prosecution of Mr. Zimmerman. In Early April of this year, it was reported by the local newspapers in Florida that the parents of Trayvon Martin reached a settlement in their civil lawsuit against the homeowner’s association where Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch captain for approximately $1,000,000.00 (although the exact amount was confidential). (See Footnote 1). Then, as we all now, Zimmerman was found not guilty of the criminal charges (including second degree murder) just this past weekend. So, this leads one to think about these contrasting results.
What is a “burden of proof” and how does this differ between civil and criminal cases? The “burden of proof” is the standard by which a matter must be proven by the evidence at trial. In the case of a criminal prosecution, it is the state bringing the charges who has this burden. In the case of a civil action, it is the “plaintiff” (party seeking money or other damages) that bears this responsibility. Based upon a long series of cases and judicial history, the burden of proof in a criminal proceeding is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. “Reasonable doubt” has been further defined as “doubt that would give rise to grave uncertainty”. (See Footnote 2).
By contrast, the “burden of proof” in a civil claim for money or other damages is lower. It is defined differently in different states and jurisdictions, however, most jurisdiction, including California define the civil lawsuit proof standard as “by a preponderance of the evidence” for most types of claims and, the slightly higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence” for claims for punitive damages (damages meant to punish the defendant rather than just compensate the victim). The “preponderance” standard is further defined as simply having to show, by the evidence, that facts are “more likely true than not true.” (See Footnote 3).