Why Jenner Was Likely to Face A Wrongful Death Suit
On February 7, 2015, Caitlyn Jenner (formerly known as Bruce Jenner) was involved in a three car accident that led to the death of one of the drivers, Kim Howe. Jenner was driving north on Pacific Coast Highway when she rear-ended Howe’s vehicle, forcing Howe’s vehicle into oncoming traffic where Howe was then fatally hit head on. As a result of the accident, it was likely that Howe’s survivors would file a wrongful death lawsuit against the former Olympian. California precedent states, “[t]he operator of a vehicle must keep a proper lookout for other vehicles or persons on the highway and must keep his car under such control as will enable him to avoid a collision; failure to keep such a lookout constitutes negligence.” Downing v. Barrett Mobile Home Transport, Inc. (1974) 38 Cal. App. 3d 519, 524.
Although investigators ruled out Jenner attempting to evade paparazzi, she was still under a duty to control her vehicle at all times to avoid any collisions. As a result of the accident, Howe’s two adult stepchildren recently filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful death against Jenner claiming that she was “careless and negligent” in the operation of her vehicle. Jenner responded to the complaint claiming that the plaintiff stepchildren lack standing to bring the lawsuit since they are independent, out-of-state, adult stepchildren who were not financially dependent on Howe for necessities of life.
What is Wrongful Death & Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Action?
In California, a “wrongful death” is when one person dies as the result of the wrongful act or negligence of another person or entity. An action for wrongful death is a civil lawsuit brought to court directly by the survivors of the decedent. The individuals who can file an action for wrongful death are generally provided for via statute. California’s wrongful death statute allows the following parties to bring a wrongful death action:
• The deceased person’s surviving spouse and children;
• The deceased person’s domestic partner;
• The deceased person’s parents, surviving siblings, or children of deceased siblings;
• The deceased person’s grandparents or lineal descendants, and/or;
• Putative spouses and stepchildren who were financially dependent on the deceased person at the time of his or her death. Cal. Code of Civil Procedure § 377.60.
Although dependent stepchildren are permitted by law to bring a wrongful death action, Jenner has a valid argument if her claim that Howe’s two stepchildren were not financially dependent on Howe at the time of the accident turns out to be true. Since Howe has no other living relatives, Jenner would escape civil liability if the stepchildren’s claim is dismissed.
A wrongful death action may be brought as a result of a number of causes, in addition to negligent automobile accidents, including: medical malpractice cases, boating accidents, defective products, food poisoning, failure to keep property safe, and work-related accidents.
If Howe’s stepchildren are found to have standing to bring the wrongful death lawsuit, they will potentially be able to recover different forms of damages to compensate them for their loss. California, like most states, does not allow for plaintiffs in wrongful death actions to recover punitive damages, which are damages solely to punish the wrongdoer. The two main types of damages that are recoverable include: (1) financial damages, i.e., loss of financial support, meaning any income the decedent would have contributed during her life, and (2) noneconomic damages, i.e., loss of love, companionship, care, comfort and society experienced by the survivors due to the absence of the deceased person. Additional forms of recoverable damages in wrongful death actions include the reasonable value of household services, funeral and/or burial expenses, and loss of enjoyment of sexual relations.
After a jury hears all the evidence, the jury will determine among themselves the total amount of damages. In awarding financial damages to the survivors, the jury will take into consideration the decedent’s age (Howe was 69), earning capacity, life expectancy, health, and any other surrounding circumstances that are relevant. On the other hand, no fixed standard exists for juries when deciding the amount of noneconomic damages. Juries would use their judgment to decide a reasonable amount based on all the evidence and common sense. However, juries cannot consider plaintiffs’ grief and sorrow, the decedent’s pain and suffering, or the plaintiffs’ wealth or poverty when determining the amount of the plaintiffs’ loss.
Although the jury is generally responsible for awarding damages, the court has the ability to increase or decrease the amount under their discretion. Furthermore, the plaintiffs would be able to present expert testimony of economists to help boost their case in establishing the value of the decedent to the plaintiffs. Expert testimony is useful in situations where the value of the deceased is not easily ascertainable and an expert’s opinion would provide the jury with insight to appropriate amounts.
If your family is struggling through the pain and confusion of dealing with the loss of a loved one, KHS is here to help and will fight for the compensation you deserve.