What is Wrongful Death and How is it Different from Murder in California?

by Staff Blogger | July 21st, 2023

Wrongful Death Lawyers in Modesto

Losing a loved one because of another person’s mistake is painful and unfair. Whether loss of life results from intended action or accidental negligence, the responsible party should still be held accountable.

Intentional murder is a crime against society. In these cases, the state will typically be quick to prosecute suspected murderers. The family of the deceased can also file a wrongful death claim.

If the death occurred unintentionally and the state does not file a lawsuit, the deceased person’s relatives can still file a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

The article below will use examples and California law to break down the sometimes vague differences between these types of claims. A Modesto wrongful death lawyer can also help relatives determine what type of suit to file and where to file it.

What is Wrongful Death in California?

Wrongful death is a civil lawsuit—relatives of a deceased person file for compensation from the defendant.

When a family member dies, the surviving relatives suffer. Losing companionship and income or incurring funeral expenses and medical bills adds to the emotional pain. Although no money can bring back a loved one, financial compensation can relieve the family of some of the burden caused by the death of a loved one.

A wrongful death claim differs from survival action claims, which only come into play if the victim doesn’t die immediately. Survival action claims aim to recover damages the deceased suffered before they succumbed to their injuries. These claims compensate for medical bills, pain, suffering, and lost income. A relative, the estate, or a personal representative may bring these claims against the defendant.

In California, the Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 – 377.62 lays out the rules for pursuing a wrongful death claim. It outlines who can bring the claim to a court of law, damages they can recover, and amendments that may affect lawsuits filed before or after the stated dates.

Here are two hypothetical examples of wrongful death cases. The first one qualifies as murder, but the second doesn’t.

Example 1: Terry unsuspectingly walks into her unlocked apartment. She assumes that her partner forgot to lock the door. However, a stranger quickly overpowers Terry and chokes her to death. Later, security cameras revealed that the intruder was a thief. When Terry walked in on them, they freaked out. When police officers track down and arrest the murderer, the state files a murder lawsuit against him. Terry’s partner also files a wrongful death lawsuit.

Example 2: Nick’s truck crashes into Liam’s car. Liam is badly hurt. An ambulance rushes him to the hospital. The doctors pronounce Liam dead on arrival. Nick did not intentionally kill Liam, but he was speeding and ran a couple of red lights. His negligence caused Liam’s family to lose a loved one, so Nick is liable for damages to compensate Liam’s family. The state doesn’t file a murder lawsuit, but Liam’s family has all the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

In both examples, families dealing with losing a loved one may feel overwhelmed. They may reason that the process is too complicated. But a wrongful death lawyer in Modesto can take away such worries and guide a victim’s family in the right direction.

The following section discusses the principles that distinguish murder from wrongful death.

The Real Differences Between Wrongful Death and Murder in California

Wrongful death differs from murder in several important ways.

Burden of proof

Criminal cases (such as murder) require a higher standard of proof than civil cases (in this case, wrongful death). For example, when state prosecutors file a murder case, they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. However, wrongful death only requires that the plaintiff prove that the accused, more likely than not, committed the offense.

Different Remedies

If a defendant is guilty of murder, the court will order a form of punishment. The murderer can be incarcerated for a time, or may even face a death penalty sentence. However, they are not required to pay monetary damages.

On the other hand, if the defendant is found guilty of wrongful death, they must compensate the family or estate of the deceased.

Remember that a defendant may be guilty of both murder and wrongful death. In that case, they would compensate the family and also face a jail term.


Generally, a murder occurs when the perpetrator has intentionally killed the victim . Wrongful deaths, however, can be either deliberate or accidental.

Who files the lawsuit?

It’s the role of the state to file murder suits. Wrongful death claims are usually filed by relatives of the person who died. The relative may be a:

  • Spouse
  • Domestic partner
  • Child
  • Grandchild
  • Parent
  • Legal guardian
  • Minor dependent

It may be difficult to decide who should file a lawsuit if there are several surviving relatives. However, after consulting a wrongful death lawyer, Modesto residents should feel confident in how to proceed.

Why Victims Need a Wrongful Death Attorney in Modesto

First-time victims may not know where to start or if they even have a claim. This is where a wrongful death attorney can provide assistance. These lawyers will evaluate the case for free to determine if surviving family members are likely to recover damages.

Berg Injury Lawyers has represented thousands of victims in Modesto and has been in business for over four decades. We know what to look for to build a solid wrongful death claim. Schedule a free consultation session with us today to find out how we can help.