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California litigation can take years to resolve, even with case management rules which can put the parties on a quick timeline towards trial. If your adversary dies before the case resolves, what do you do? That depends. If your dispute is particularly acrimonious, you might be tempted to celebrate. That’s fine, but don’t let it get in the way of protecting your right to recover or escape.

California Code of Civil Procedure section 377.31 empowers the decedent’s personal representative to substitute in for the decedent plaintiff or cross-complainant. How long after the death can the representative wait? There are cases where the dismissal for failure to prosecute occurred within 8 months or so of the death.

Section 377.31 states:

On motion after the death of a person who commenced an action or proceeding, the court shall allow a pending action or proceeding that does not abate to be continued by the decedent’s personal representative or, if none, by the decedent’s successor in interest.

Section 377.31 states:

On motion after the death of a person who commenced an action or proceeding, the court shall allow a pending action or proceeding that does not abate to be continued by the decedent’s personal representative or, if none, by the decedent’s successor in interest.

Section 377.31 states:

On motion after the death of a person who commenced an action or proceeding, the court shall allow a pending action or proceeding that does not abate to be continued by the decedent’s personal representative or, if none, by the decedent’s successor in interest.

(a) The court may in its discretion dismiss an action for delay in prosecution pursuant to this article on its own motion or on motion of the defendant if to do so appears to the court appropriate under the circumstances of the case.

(b) Dismissal shall be pursuant to the procedure and in accordance with the criteria prescribed by rules adopted by the Judicial Council.

If you are the plaintiff, you can continue to pursue your case can be asserted against the decedent’s personal representative or, to the extent provided by statute, against the decedent’s successor in interest. (C.C.P. 377.40) You do need to make sure you’ve submitted a creditor’s claim in the decedent’s probate though. Section 377.41 states:

On motion, the court shall allow a pending action or proceeding against the decedent that does not abate to be continued against the decedent’s personal representative or, to the extent provided by statute, against the decedent’s successor in interest, except that the court may not permit an action or proceeding to be continued against the personal representative unless proof of compliance with Part 4 (commencing with Section 9000) of Division 7 of the Probate Code governing creditor claims is first made.

And you won’t be able to recover punitive damages once your defendant dies. Section 377.42 states:

In an action or proceeding against a decedent’s personal representative or, to the extent provided by statute, against the decedent’s successor in interest, on a cause of action against the decedent, all damages are recoverable that might have been recovered against the decedent had the decedent lived except damages recoverable under Section 3294 of the Civil Code or other punitive or exemplary damages.

Questions? Call Us Today!

If you have questions about litigation involving a deceased person, probate or estate planning, contact our office to schedule an appointment.

By: Kathleen J. Smith, Esq.

About the Author
Theodore J. Schneider practices in the areas of business and corporate transactions, employment law counseling, municipal and public law, real estate and land use, and homeowner associations. Ted began his legal career in 2002 when he joined the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, L.L.P. before relocating to Ventura County to join his father in practice.