The One Action Rule
If you lose a family member because of another’s negligence or recklessness, you can receive monetary compensation for your loss by filing a wrongful death suit. If the deceased person has more than one heir, all possible heirs will need to join together in one suit. Because of California’s one action rule, the responsible party cannot be sued multiple times by multiple people. More information regarding wrongful death suits, in general, can be found in a previous post.The Rule
The one action rule means that anyone who files a wrongful death suit must include all known heirs as parties to the suit. The judgment is awarded to the whole family, who must then sort out how to divide it among the heirs. If they cannot figure out how to split the money, the family can go to court and a judge will determine how it should be divided.Joining Claimants
The guilty party, or defendant, does not have the duty to locate and join heirs; rather, the claimant who brings the suit has that responsibility. If the claimant does not join all known heirs, this does not mean that the action fails. The court may still grant complete relief to the parties that have been joined. However, if any heirs are inadvertently excluded from the wrongful death suit, they still have a right to compensation. The omitted heirs have a right to a remedy against the other claimants, not against the defendant. This means that the other claimants may be liable to the omitted claimant.
If a wrongful death suit is brought by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate, rather than by a family member, there is no requirement that all eligible claimants be joined in the suit. This is because the personal representative has the authority to sue on behalf of all claimants.Waiver/Estoppel
If the defendant knew that a claimant was not joined in the wrongful death action, the one action rule does not apply, and that plaintiff may bring a subsequent wrongful death claim against the defendant.
In a 2012 case, Moody v. Bedford, a claimant settled a wrongful death suit with an insurance company. However, the claimant failed to name the other heirs to the insurance company, and thus collected the entire settlement herself. The other heirs then brought a wrongful death action, which the appeals court ruled was not barred by the one action rule. But the California Supreme Court subsequently ordered that the opinion be depublished, meaning that it cannot be used as precedent. However, it illustrates the fact that sometimes, when there is no law in the area, a wrongful death action may be able to be filed despite the one action rule.
Identifying qualified heirs is essential to a wrongful death suit. It is important to make sure you correctly join the heirs, because an omission can cause further legal trouble. This sort of complex legal work is best handled by an attorney. Please contact the dedicated San Jose personal injury attorneys at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. if you need help recovering compensation in the aftermath of a wrongful death.