Experiencing the grief that follows the death of a loved one is never easy. However, when another person’s negligence caused the loved one’s death in a car accident, unbearable grief can result. Should such a tragedy take place, then you, as a surviving family member, may bring a wrongful death claim or file a lawsuit against the driver who caused the accident. Although money can never truly replace a loved one who has passed away, it is the only legal means of compensating surviving family members for their loss.
The process and procedure for filing a wrongful death car accident claim vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Sometimes surviving family members must open an estate for the decedent and appoint a personal representative. The personal representative—or PR—can then bring the wrongful death claim on behalf of the decedent’s estate. In other jurisdictions, individuals from the decedent’s family can file a claim for wrongful death directly.
Wrongful death claims differ from other personal injury claims that individuals file after a car accident. Moreover, depending on your jurisdiction, there are different lengths of time in which you have to file your wrongful death claim. If you do not file your claim within that window of time, you waive forever your right to collect monetary compensation under your state’s wrongful death statute.
Hire an experienced wrongful death lawyer to represent you throughout your case. A lawyer will file your wrongful death claim or lawsuit in a timely manner, and can pursue monetary compensation on behalf of the claimant or personal representative of the estate.
Common Causes of Fatal Car Accidents
Car accidents often occur because a motor vehicle driver was operating his or her vehicle in an unsafe and careless manner, and it is an unfortunate fact that some of these accidents will lead to a person’s death.
The most common causes of fatal car accidents include:
- Negligent or reckless driving – When motor vehicle operators fail to operate their vehicles in a safe and responsible manner, such as driving at an excessive speed, they increase their chances of causing a serious motor vehicle collision that may wind up being fatal.
- Distracted driving – Distracted driving often involves a driver focused on a cell phone or other electronic device, instead of the road. When such a driver turns his or her attention away from the road—even for a second or two—it is easy for the driver to cross a double yellow line and strike another motor vehicle head-on.
- Intoxicated or drugged driving – Every state in the country has laws pertaining to intoxicated driving. When motor vehicle operators drive their vehicles while under the illegal influence of drugs or alcohol, they present a danger to all other drivers and passengers who are on the road at that time. Alcohol and drugs can affect a person’s motor skills, coordination, thinking, and reaction time, all of which can contribute to a fatal crash.
If someone you love was killed in one of these types of accidents, an experienced wrongful death attorney in your jurisdiction can assist you in bringing your claim against the appropriate at-fault individual or individuals.
What Is a Wrongful Death Claim?
A wrongful death claim is a personal injury claim that a surviving family member or personal representative of an estate files against the person or persons who caused a fatal car accident. When it comes to proving a wrongful death claim, the elements of proof are much the same as those in an ordinary negligence case.
If you are planning to pursue a wrongful death claim, an experienced wrongful death lawyer in your jurisdiction can assist you with:
- Determining who is eligible to file the wrongful death claim, based upon the laws and regulations applicable to your jurisdiction.
- Opening an estate on behalf of your deceased loved one, gathering copies of all of the relevant documentation, and taking the necessary steps to appoint a personal representative for the estate.
- Filing a wrongful death claim with the at-fault individual or entity’s insurance company, as well as submitting a demand package that includes all of the relevant medical records and bills incurred by the decedent up until the time of his or her death.
- Attempting to negotiate a favorable settlement offer with the at-fault individual or entity’s insurance company.
- Continuing to litigate the case and try the case before a jury in the state court system, if no favorable settlement is reached.
Who Can File a Claim for Wrongful Death?
The question of who can file for wrongful death and bring a claim depends upon the jurisdiction where the accident occurred, since wrongful death and estate laws are often state-specific. In some jurisdictions, only individuals who are the appointed personal representative of an estate are eligible to bring a wrongful death claim. In other jurisdictions, the surviving family members of a deceased loved one may bring the wrongful death claim directly.
In those jurisdictions, family members who may be eligible to bring a wrongful death claim include:
- The surviving spouse of the deceased individual
- The surviving children of the deceased individual
- The surviving parents of the deceased individual
- Extended family members who survive the deceased individual
However, the order of precedence among these individuals varies based upon the jurisdiction. An experienced wrongful death attorney will know the law in your specific jurisdiction and can assist the proper individuals with bringing a claim for wrongful death against the proper at-fault individual or entity.
Burden of Proof in a Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death claim can present challenges, since the decedent can no longer testify or to provide a first-hand description of what occurred in the accident. Moreover, the deceased individual is not available to testify about his or her injuries, or the pain and suffering that the accident caused him or her to experience.
In a wrongful death claim, the claimant, such as the surviving family member or personal representative, has the burden of proof. The at-fault individual, such as the motor vehicle operator who caused the fatal car crash, does not need to prove anything.
Although the specific elements of proof in wrongful death cases vary by jurisdiction, the elements of proof for most wrongful death car accident claims generally are as follows:
- That another driver acted in an unreasonable manner, such as by speeding, running a red traffic signal, or taking some other action that was unreasonable under the circumstances at that time
- That the driver’s unreasonable behavior brought about a motor vehicle collision
- That as a direct result of the motor vehicle collision, one or more occupants of the vehicles that were involved in the collision died
An experienced wrongful death lawyer in your jurisdiction can assist you with bringing a claim for wrongful death and can assist you with meeting your required burden of proof. In some wrongful death cases, insurance companies will go ahead and offer up their policy limits. At other times, however, the claimant’s attorney will need to negotiate with the other insurance company—especially if multiple deaths and/or serious injuries resulted from the collision.
Potential Types of Damages Available in Wrongful Death Claims
Whenever a claimant or personal representative bringing a wrongful death claim can satisfy his or her legal burden of proof, monetary damages may be available. In the case of a personal representative, any damage award will go to the named individual, “as personal representative of the decedent’s estate.” The personal representative would then be responsible for distributing the money.
Damage awards in wrongful death cases can be tricky. Although money can never replace the comfort and companionship of a lost loved one, it is the only thing available under the law to compensate grieving family members and loved ones of the decedent. Moreover, the amounts and types of damages that can be awarded in wrongful death cases differ from ordinary personal injury cases. For example, individuals who eventually pass away due to injuries from a serious car accident often required a significant amount of medical treatment in the time leading up to their deaths—all of which may be compensable.
Some of the most common types of available monetary damages in wrongful death car accident cases include the following:
- Compensation for the deceased individual’s medical bills and expenses – Up until the time of the decedent’s death, the decedent may have required medical care and treatment, including both doctor and hospital stay expenses. All of those expenses are legally compensable under most state wrongful death statutes.
- Loss of future earnings – In some families, the individual who passed away in a car accident is the family’s primary breadwinner. When that is the situation, surviving loved ones may have been dependent upon the deceased individual to continue working and providing for the family’s needs well into the future. Since the deceased loved one can no longer fill this role, family members can receive compensation for the loss of the loved one’s anticipated future earnings.
- Pain and suffering – Although a deceased loved one is no longer in pain, such an individual can still experience terrible pain and suffering up until the time of his or her death. This is a more frequent occurrence in cases involving fatal car accidents in which the loved one sustained painful injuries, such as paralysis, other spinal cord injuries, soft tissue injuries, bone fractures, and traumatic head or brain injuries. These injuries would then culminate later in the accident victim’s death. In a wrongful death claim, deceased loved ones are eligible to recover monetary compensation for all of the suffering and pain that the decedent had to endure from the time the accident occurred up until the time of death.
- Loss of companionship – The untimely loss of a close loved one can leave a significant hole in the lives of surviving family members. As part of a wrongful death claim, surviving family members are eligible to pursue monetary compensation (in the form of non-economic damages) for the loss of companionship and support of the deceased loved one going into the future.
In addition to these types of damages, punitive damages may also be available to wrongful death claimants for situations in which the at-fault individual behaved in a particularly reckless or egregious manner at the time of the car accident. For example, the at-fault driver may have been driving at a grossly excessive rate of speed or may have been driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The primary purpose of punitive damages is to punish at-fault drivers for their gross negligence, and to deter similar wrongdoing by others.
An experienced wrongful death attorney in your jurisdiction can assist you with filing a wrongful death claim on your behalf—or on behalf of your deceased loved one’s estate—and will work to help you and the other surviving family members recover the compensation that all of you deserve. Your lawyer will engage with the at-fault driver’s insurance company to make sure that you are fully and fairly compensated.
If your loved one suffered an untimely death in a motor vehicle accident that was caused by another driver’s recklessness and negligence, you may be eligible to assert a wrongful death claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. Wrongful death claims can be complicated, and you need a lawyer on your side who not only understands the law in your jurisdiction, but also knows how to successfully pursue these types of claims.
Contact a knowledgeable wrongful death attorney who can assist you with gathering the necessary documentation, opening an estate, filing a claim, pursuing a settlement, and taking the case to court, if necessary.
Brauns Law, P.C.
3175 Satellite Boulevard, Bldg 600
Duluth, GA 30096