California’s SB 447 – California’s New Approach To Wrongful Deaths

On October 1, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 447 into law amending section 377.34 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which will allow California wrongful death claimants to recover pain and suffering and disfigurement damages that were suffered by their deceased loved one.

The bill put forth in the house by State Senator John Laird (D) will apply to all wrongful death claims filed between January 1, 2022, to January 1, 2026. The new law also applies to existing wrongful death claims in which a motion for trial preference pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure section 36 had been granted before the death of the decedent. California Code of Civil Procedure section 36 requires that such a trial begin no later than 120 days after the motion is granted.

Requirements of the New Statute

During the four years, this revised statute will be in effect, a plaintiff who recovers the new damages made available by the rule must submit a copy of the judgment,  a court-approved settlement agreement, or consent judgment to the California Judicial Council. Along with these documents, they must attach a cover sheet with all the information stipulated in subsections (c)(1)-(3) of the amended code section, which must be done within 60 days.

Under section d of the amended statute, California’s Judicial Council is required to analyze all recoveries made between the beginning of 2022 and the end of 2025 and provide the legislature with a report on January 1, 2025. The report will then serve as a guide concerning what will happen with the revised statute beyond 2026.

The new statute runs for a four-year term, but there is a high likelihood that the legislature will adopt these changes on a permanent basis by 2026. It is important to note that this amendment does not allow for punitive damages; it only makes it possible for dependents of the deceased to obtain the previously excluded benefits during the time period that the claimant was alive.

Some Legal Issues Raised by the Law

According to legal experts, the amendment raises some issues, but only time will tell how they will play out. One of the issues is the question of granting a motion for a preferential trial date.

The primary justification for granting the motion was to speed up the process to ensure that plaintiffs recovered their non-economic damages as quickly as possible in light of their limited life expectancy caused by the injuries suffered. Under the amended law, the damages outlive the plaintiff, so one could argue it may not be absolutely necessary to file a motion for a preferential trial date unless the plaintiff’s heirs are minors under 14 years of age.

It Complicates Things

“While this law is meant as a positive change, it does present some challenges which make handling a wrongful death case in California more complex,” said Larry Eisenberg of the Law Offices of Eisenberg & Associates in Irvine, CA.

Four years may not be such an extended period, but the first implementation will face some complications. The purpose is that the new law will compensate heirs affected by the loss of their breadwinner and obtain justice for their significant loss.