Wrongful death claim against highway patrol could proceed

If a party negligently causes the wrongful death of a victim, that party should be held accountable for their actions. If such a claim arises, however, it is crucial that the victim's family immediately retain counsel and take speedy action.

A significant delay in filing an action can lead to the dismissal of a claim, as almost happened in the recent California Court of Appeal case of DeVore v. California Highway Patrol.

A traffic stop . . . and a subsequent fatal accident

The victim was riding a motorcycle on Interstate 505 outside Winters, California, when he attempted to avoid a multiple car accident. He was thrown from the motorcycle and fell 34 feet from a bridge to his death.

The accident was caused by a man driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. The car the man was driving was uninsured and unregistered. The man was eventually charged with vehicular manslaughter, although the process took several months.

During the process, however, the victim's family learned during a preliminary hearing that the man who caused the accident had actually been stopped by a highway patrol officer less than two hours before the accident. The officer had stopped the man for speeding, but did not issue a citation or impound the uninsured and unregistered car, even when the man failed to show a valid driver's license.

The victim's family sought legal representation and a suit was filed based on the fact that the officer did not carry out his mandatory duty by impounding the man's car, which would have prevented the fatal accident later.

The trial court found that the victim's family had not pursued the claim quickly enough-they had not contacted counsel until after the expiration of the six-month time limit to file a claim in this area of the law. The victim's family appealed.

Was the late filing excusable?

Under California law, in order to file a late claim against a public entity, the party must establish that the required application to the entity being sued was filed in a reasonable period of time after it was discovered that a lawsuit could be filed, and that the delay was caused by reasons such as surprise or excusable neglect. Neglect is not excusable where the party fails to take any action within six months after knowing a lawsuit could have been filed.

The California Court of Appeal held that, in this case, there was nothing in the accident report or the records of the highway patrol which would have led the victim's family to discover the traffic stop earlier. The trial court did not explain what the victim's family or their counsel could have done to discover the earlier traffic stop within the time limit. Without this information, the victim's family could not have reasonably had any motivation to employ counsel or file a lawsuit earlier.

Thus, the failure to discover the basis for the negligence lawsuit was excusable and the delay before applying to file a late claim was reasonable. The decision of the lower court was reversed and the victim's family would have the opportunity to pursue their claim.

Seek representation immediately

If your family has suffered a wrongful death to the negligence of others, it is crucial that you take immediate action as soon as you know a lawsuit might be necessary. Seek an experienced personal injury attorney who will investigate the cause of your accident and ensure that your rights are protected.