In any family, the sudden, accidental, and unexpected loss of a loved one will cause profound anguish, but when someone’s negligence has caused another person’s accidental death, the deceased person’s surviving family members are legally entitled to compensation under California law. In this state, it does not matter how a wrongful death happens; if someone else’s negligence was a direct cause of a wrongful death, that person can be held legally accountable when the surviving family members file a wrongful death claim and seek compensation.

Wrongful death claims in this state may arise from fatal traffic collisions or from any other avoidable negligence that leads to someone’s accidental death. In Southern California, if you suddenly and unexpectedly lose a member of your family because another person has been negligent, discuss your case as soon as possible with an experienced Orange County wrongful death attorney.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE WRONGFUL DEATH OF HUN JOON LEE?

In June, the surviving family members of an autistic teen who died in Whittier in 2015 agreed to a $23.5-million settlement of their wrongful death claim. The body of Hun Joon “Paul” Lee, 19, was found in a bus at a Whittier bus yard in September 2015. The teenager sweltered to death inside the bus. The outside temperature that day was 96 degrees. The bus driver, Armando Abel Ramirez of Rialto, did not check to ensure that everyone had left the bus.

The youth’s parents sued the bus agency, Pupil Transportation Cooperative, which provides bus service to the Whittier Union High School District. The lawsuit states that Hun Joon Lee boarded a bus bound for the Sierra Vista Adult School that morning but did not return home that afternoon. Another driver later found Lee passed out inside the bus. Armando Abel Ramirez was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted on the criminal charge of felony dependent adult abuse resulting in death.

It was not the first time that a driver for the Pupil Transportation Cooperative left a student on a bus. Debbie LaJoie, a former director of transportation for Pupil Transportation Cooperative, stated in a deposition prior to the settlement that as many as four special-education students had been left on the company’s buses from 2006 through 2015. She said that the drivers involved in those incidents had not been terminated.

The chief executive officer of Pupil Transportation Cooperative, Steve Bui, said in a statement: “It has been our priority to reach a resolution with the family of Paul Lee. Though nothing will ever ease the pain they have endured, we have worked diligently to refine our policies to ensure that something like this never happens again. PTC remains dedicated to providing safe, high-quality transportation services to the children and families in our communities.”

HOW DID LAWMAKERS RESPOND TO HUN JOON LEE’S DEATH?

Last year, in response to Hun Joon Lee’s death and similar school bus incidents, the California State Legislature approved new legislation that will enhance the safety of young people on school buses. The new law, which will take effect beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, requires all buses in this state to be equipped with child safety alarms, and it additionally requires all bus drivers to receive annual child-safety training.

Statistically speaking, school buses are extraordinarily safe vehicles, and they are designed with safety in mind. In fact, most school bus-related injuries and fatalities do not even happen on a bus. They happen off the bus in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls the “Danger Zone,” the area within ten feet of the bus in every direction. School bus-related fatalities are infrequent and tragic. Deaths like Hun Joon Lee’s are extremely rare exceptions.

Obviously, when someone loses a loved one in a wrongful death here in southern California, no amount of money will relieve the pain, but a wrongful death claim can at least help the surviving family members to meet their immediate financial responsibilities and to avoid any potential financial hardship. A wrongful death claim holds accountable the person or persons that were negligent and thus responsible for the wrongful death.

WHO MAY PURSUE A WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM IN CALIFORNIA?

In California, your legal right to file a wrongful death claim hinges on your relationship with the deceased person. In this state, the deceased person’s surviving spouse, surviving children, or surviving domestic partner may bring a wrongful death claim. Only when there are no surviving spouses, partners, or children, a wrongful death claim may be filed by anyone “entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession,” including the deceased person’s parents or siblings. Stepchildren may also file a wrongful death claim if they can prove that they were financially dependent on the deceased stepparent.

Typically in the state of California, wrongful death claims are settled through out-of-court negotiations. Lawyers for both sides are usually able to reach an agreement that is acceptable to everyone involved. If the parties cannot agree and a wrongful death case goes to trial, the plaintiff (the person filing the wrongful death claim) must prove that the defendant (the person who allegedly was negligent) owed the deceased person a “duty of care” and must also prove that the duty of care was breached. Finally, the plaintiff must prove that the breach of duty was a direct cause of the wrongful death.

Of course, when you’ve suddenly and tragically lost someone you love, even talking about legal matters can be quite difficult. Nevertheless, you must file a wrongful death claim swiftly. In most circumstances, the California statute of limitations requires the surviving family members to file a wrongful death claim within two years of the date of the death, with several exceptions (explained below).

If a wrongful death was a result of medical malpractice, a claim must be filed within three years of the death. When the government or any government agency, including a county or state hospital, is named as the defendant in a wrongful death claim, the initial claim must be filed within six months of the death. Do not wait six months or two years. Your family needs to put an experienced Orange County wrongful death attorney on the case as soon as possible.

When a family member dies a wrongful death because of somebody else’s negligence, few of us are prepared to deal with the inevitable legal and emotional issues that will arise. A good wrongful death lawyer, however, will be sensitive to the emotions and needs of the surviving family members while working diligently for the justice and compensation that survivors are entitled to by California law.

By: Chris Purcell

Attorney Chris Purcell is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara College of Law. He exclusively represents the victims of personal injury and wrongful death. Chris was part of the team that won California’s largest-ever wrongful death judgment – a $150 million verdict for a family devastated by a tragic trucking accident. In 2011, he received the Top Gun Award given by the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association.