Q: My father was killed in an accident that was not his fault. As a result, I ended up with an inheritance. Will the inheritance count against me if I sue the wrongdoer who caused my father’s death?
A: No. At least not in a case in California. It’s not what you received as a result of your father’s death that counts. Rather, in a wrongful death case, the “measure of damages” is what the heirs “were receiving at the time of the death of the deceased” and what such heirs “would have received had decedent lived.” Johnson v. Western Air Exp. Corp. (1941) 45 Cal.App.2d 614, 622.
In fact, what a plaintiff inherited as a result of a wrongful death of a family member is not supposed to even be allowed into evidence. That’s because the financial benefits an heir may have received as a result of the death are not relevant to their damages. Further, a wrongdoer may not escape responsibility for his negligent acts by pointing to the plaintiff’s receipt of funds that the wrongdoer didn’t provide. Any benefit that a plaintiff received as a result of a wrongful death is not to be considered in assessing damages in a wrongful death action, either as an item of deduction or a ground for awarding only nominal damages, and so the jury should not even be told of an inheritance.
This principle was first set forth in a case called McLaughlin v. United Railroads. In that case, the heirs of Mrs. McLaughlin brought an action against a Railroad for the wrongful death of their mother. The family had inherited from their mother assets which generated rental income: “a return in no wise dependent upon the skill, ability, or exertions of the deceased.” The Railroad argued to admit evidence that the children had “by the death of the mother come into the ownership of all of her property” to show that the compensation they were entitled to from the Railroad should be reduced to prevent a double recovery. In rejecting the Railroad’s argument the Court stated:
This rule of evidence has its foundation in the refusal of the court to allow the defendant to benefit by his own wrong, to lessen his responsibility in damages for the injury which he has inflicted, by a showing that, quite fortuitously, through no contribution of defendant’s own, the plaintiffs have received a certain pecuniary benefit.
McLaughlin, supra, 169 Cal. at 498 (emphasis added).
Today, the rule in Calfiornia remains: income or property that transferred to the victim’s heirs as a result of the wrongful death should not be admitted as evidence at trial.