Tens of thousands of people die in “accidental” deaths each year, but for the most part, these events are not accidents. Sometimes, human error is the sole factor, and that is generally the case in motor vehicle crashes.
However, liability for damages is often more complicated than fault in an accident. For example, a child might drown in a swimming pool because necessary life-saving equipment is not where it should be. Or, a worker might fall at a construction site because safety measures are either incomplete or not present at all.
Several years ago, unintentional poisoning replaced motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Fatal incidents often occur because of:
- Illegal Drug Overdoses: Especially in some parts of California, heroin addiction is a serious problem, and this issue does not occur in a vacuum. Many drug manufacturers and doctors aggressively push powerful opiate pain relievers, and heroin is often the next step up. In addition to doctors and manufacturers, persons who provide a place to use drugs, connect users with suppliers, or otherwise facilitate the fatal overdose may also be responsible for damages, if the death was a foreseeable result of their conduct or misconduct.
- Prescription Drug Overdose: Doctors are especially vulnerable to lawsuits in this area, as “pill mills” abound in SoCal. Many times, these physicians either do not consult medical records or do not ask many questions before they prescribe pills, and using too many of them, or taking them in the wrong combination, is often deadly.
- Household Chemicals: Many cleaning products contain high levels of sodium hydroxide, ammonia, chlorine, and other dangerous chemicals, and the scant warning labels are often insufficient.
- Swimming Pool Poisonings: To combat bacteria, many pool owners over-use chlorine and other cleaning products, which are either possibly fatal to everyone or trigger violent allergic reactions in many swimmers.
In a case that will probably draw considerable attention, a Washington city recently sued Purdue Pharma, claiming that the drugmaker is responsible for the epidemic of Oxycontin addiction and the resulting uptick in drug overdose deaths.
As older people have become more active in recent decades, the number of fatal falls has escalated dramatically. That being said, anyone can be a fall victim at any time because of:
- Wet spots on commercial floors,
- Uneven walkways,
- Burned-out lights, and
- Other dangerous conditions.
In California, owners have a duty of care to protect people who visit their property, businesses, or premises from unintentional injury from falls, and in some cases, they have a duty to prevent third-party criminal activity as well.
Motor Vehicle Crashes
Despite considerable advances in automotive safety design and technology, as well as tough DUI laws and other legal protections, almost 40,000 people a year die in car crashes. One advocacy group has identified three types of impairment that, taken together, are responsible for a large number of these deaths:
- Drunk Driving: In most cases, alcohol impairment begins with one drink, and the danger escalates thereafter.
- Drugged Driving: Some people consider drugged driving wrongful deaths to be a form of poisoning. In addition to prescription painkillers and street drugs, many over-the-counter drugs have impairing side-effects as well, such as certain antihistamines and even caffeine.
- Fatigued Driving: Lack of sleep and alcohol intake affect the brain in much the same way. In fact, driving after eighteen hours without sleep is like driving with a .08 BAC.
Distracted driving, which could include everything from talking on a cellphone to eating a sandwich while driving, also causes many car crashes, as does excessive speed.
Swimming Pool Drownings
The same duty of care that applies to falls also applies to swimming pool drownings. These incidents claim the lives of over 5,000 people a year, and many of them are young children. Many times, the applicable building codes regarding fences and gates for swimming pools establish the duty of care, as do laws regarding signage.
Some of the traditional negligence defenses do not apply in this case. For example, many young children are legally incapable of assuming the risk of injury, and the general principle that owners owe little or no duty to trespassers does not apply if the premises contain a swimming pool or other attractive nuisance.
The leading cause of death for children under age 1 is not birth injuries, SIDS, or shaken baby syndrome, as unintentional suffocation kills hundreds of infants a year. Many times, the crib and sheets are either poorly designed or the usage instructions are not sufficiently clear, making these products extremely unsafe.
According to Sherwin Arzani, an attorney who handles wrongful death cases in Los Angeles, “In all these cases, victims are entitled to compensation for their economic damages, such as lost wages, and their noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering.” In many cases, additional punitive damages are also available.