Every year, approximately 1.25 million people die in car accidents around the country. Some of them die at the scene, while others survive long enough to receive medical treatment, but tragically succumb to their injuries. Survivors of a driver or passenger killed in a car accident often face overwhelming emotional strain and struggle to know where to turn for help.
In this blog post, we seek to answer one of their most fundamental questions: What happens when someone dies due to a car accident?
The “At-Fault” Driver May Face Criminal Charges, but Not Always
Many car accidents happen because a driver of one of the vehicles involved acted carelessly or recklessly. If that accident leads to the death of someone else, the driver may face criminal charges, such as for vehicular manslaughter.
Not every accident that results in death, however, will leave the “at-fault” driver with criminal liability. The decision whether to charge a driver with a crime in a fatal car accident rests with the local district attorney, who will assess a variety of factors to determine whether a driver was “criminally culpable” in causing the death. District attorneys will often consider whether:
- The accident resulted from under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol is illegal in Pennsylvania. A fatal drunk or drugged driving accident frequently leads to criminal charges against the driver.
- The driver drove recklessly and/or ignored traffic laws. Every driver has a legal duty to follow the rules of the road and to take care not to harm others. When a car accident results from an egregious violation of driving rules, such as extreme speeding or “road rage,” the driver will often face criminal prosecution.
- Whether factors out of the driver’s control played a role in causing the accident. Criminal charges are less likely to result from a fatal accident caused by a factor out of a driver’s control, such as poor road conditions, unpredictable mechanical failure, or an “Act of God.”
The Estate of the Deceased Person May File a Civil “Wrongful Death” Action
If a loved one dies in a car accident, the victim’s surviving family members have the right under Pennsylvania law to file a “wrongful death” lawsuit, so long as the victim could have filed a personal injury suit for the injuries caused by the accident had he or she lived. Here are the relevant considerations:
There Must Be a Party With Legal Liability
For the survivors of the victim of a fatal car accident to have the legal right to seek financial compensation, there must be someone to seek compensation from. In other words, the accident must have, at least partially, resulted from the wrongful actions of someone other than the deceased accident victim.
Every car accident is different in this regard. Many car accidents result from the careless or reckless actions of a driver. In those accidents, the driver (and his or her insurance policy) will have legal liability for the wrongful death of anyone killed. Experienced car accident wrongful death attorneys, however, know not to stop at the “other driver” in looking for parties with legal liability for a tragic loss of life. Instead, they investigate accidents to determine whether one or more parties other or additional party had “fault” for causing the fatal accident.
The lawyer’s investigation may include inquiring whether the accident resulted from:
- Mechanical failures. If the mechanical failure of a car part—such as a tire blowout—precipitated a fatal car accident, then the lawyer for the accident victim’s survivors may want to explore whether that failure resulted from a “defect” that made the part “unreasonably dangerous.” Under Pennsylvania law, manufacturers of “unreasonably dangerous” car parts face potential legal liability for the harm their defective products cause, including for car accidents resulting in someone’s untimely death. Similarly, auto mechanics may face liability if repairs they performed (or failed to perform) on a vehicle made it unreasonably dangerous and caused an accident.
- Over-serving alcohol to a bar or restaurant patron. Under Pennsylvania law, it is illegal for bars and restaurants to serve alcohol to a patron who is “visibly intoxicated.” Violating that law can saddle those establishments with legal liability for wrongful death if a patron causes a fatal drunk driving accident.
- Drivers’ employers. In Pennsylvania, employers generally have legal liability for the acts of their employees while “on the job.” If the driver of a commercial vehicle causes a fatal accident because of careless or reckless driving, then the driver’s employer may owe damages to the family of the victim. Likewise, if the employer’s own actions contributed to the cause of an accident, the employer may have “direct” liability, such as when an employer requires a driver to falsify records, or sends drivers out on the road behind the wheel of vehicles in poor condition.
Every car accident case is different. An experienced car accident lawyer knows to look deep into the facts to identify all parties who may have contributed to the tragic death of a client’s loved one.
The Personal Representative of the Deceased Person’s Estate Must Bring the Action
There can only be one wrongful death lawsuit for personal injury damages filed arising from the death of a person killed in a car accident. Under Pennsylvania law, the personal representative of the estate of the person who died has the right to bring the action “only for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased.”
Damages recovered in a wrongful death action are distributed according to the deceased person’s will, if there was one, and if not under Pennsylvania laws for distributing an estate of a person who died without leaving a will. If no spouse, child, or parent exists to sue for damages in a wrongful death action, the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate may still bring the action “to recover damages for reasonable hospital, nursing, medical, funeral expenses and expenses of administration necessitated by reason of injuries causing death.”
The Action Can Seek to Recover a Variety of Damages
The compensation the personal representative seeks in an action for wrongful death covers both any claims the deceased person could have made arising out of the car accident, as well as certain additional damages arising out of the death itself. These damages typically include:
Your loved one’s medical expenses before death. In some cases, a car accident may cause your loved one’s death hours, days, or even weeks after the accident itself. Due to the severity of your loved one’s injuries, medical bills may mount quickly. Compensation for those medical expenses is typically included as part of a wrongful death claim.
Expenses arising from your loved one’s death. Additional expenses related to a loved one’s death, such as funeral and burial costs, also typically constitute elements of the damages sought in a wrongful death claim.
Your loved one’s pain and suffering before death. Many injuries cause a substantial amount of pain before they lead to the death of the individual injured in the accident. If your loved one lived for some time after the accident, then a wrongful death claim may seek damages for this pain and suffering.
Loss of your loved one’s income. The wages your loved one was not able to earn in the period between the accident and the date of death, as well as the future income your loved one would have earned had the death not occurred, also figure into the calculation of damages in a wrongful death action.
Loss of the services your loved one provided to the family. Even if your loved one did not work, his loss can cause substantial financial difficulty for the family. Often, the value of services provided exceeds the value of a loved one’s income, such as for:
- Child care
- Cooking for the family
- Care for an elderly loved one
- Yard maintenance
- Home maintenance
- Maintenance on vehicles
- Home cleaning
When you lose a loved one who performed these services, you may have to hire someone else to take care of those services, often at an extremely high financial cost. In many cases, professionals cannot fully replace the value your loved one offered to the family, but they can alleviate some of the burdens you face due to that loss.
Loss of your loved one’s presence, support, and companionship. For minor children, this could mean the loss of a parent’s guidance and advice. For the spouse of the deceased, this could mean loss of consortium as well as the loss of a partner and companion.
The “Value” of a Wrongful Death Action Will Depend, in Part, on the Financial Resources of the Party With Liability
Every family that loses a loved due to a car accident should recover a full measure of compensation from the party at fault. In reality, whether a family can recover that compensation depends, in part, on the financial resources of the party that caused their loved one’s untimely death. For example, if legal liability falls only to the “other driver,” then in most (but not all) cases the amount of insurance that driver carried will dictate how much money the grieving family can hope to receive.
That is why experienced lawyers know the crucial importance of digging deep into a case to identify every party with potential legal liability in a wrongful death case. In many instances, locating a second, third, or fourth party with liability effectively means doubling, tripling, or quadrupling the funds available to pay a settlement or jury verdict. Not every case presents that sort of opportunity, of course. Still, clients have every right to expect their lawyer to do the necessary due diligence to determine the full scope of potential liability.
Hiring an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney Is a Must
Families who lose a loved one in a car accident face sudden, unexpected, emotionally-overwhelming burdens. They need skilled, sophisticated legal guidance to help them make sound decisions about when and how to enforce their legal rights to seek compensation through a wrongful death action. Not just any lawyer will do. Families should only put themselves in the hands of a lawyer with a sufficient depth of experience and resources to pursue a wrongful death action to the fullest extent possible.
Why is it so important to hire an attorney with a track record of success and years of practice in wrongful death cases?
Insurance Companies May Attempt to Shortchange the Family.
After a fatal car accident, insurance companies for parties with potential legal liability may get in touch with the family of the deceased to offer a “quick” settlement. Typically, however, the amount of a settlement offered “out of the blue” does not reflect the full amount of money that the family deserves to receive as compensation for the tragic loss of life due to a car accident. Families should never accept these offers (which come with onerous legal strings attached), at least not without first consulting with an experienced wrongful death car accident injury attorney.
An Experienced Attorney Knows Where to Look for Parties With Liability.
As we have described above, the immense tragedy of an untimely death due to a car accident calls for an attorney who will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of justice, accountability, and compensation. The more parties who have potential liability for a tragic death, the higher the likelihood of the family recovering the damages it deserves.
Only the Most Skilled Negotiators and Trial Lawyers Will Do.
Wrongful death lawsuits arising out of car accidents frequently involve large damages claims, some amounting to millions of dollars. With that much money at stake, families should entrust their legal representation to an attorney who knows how to go toe-to-toe with powerful insurance companies in negotiations, and has the talent to present a compelling case to a Pennsylvania jury.
If you lost a loved one in a fatal car accident, contact a wrongful death lawyer as soon as possible. The sooner you contact an attorney, the sooner that attorney can start working on your behalf to seek the compensation you deserve.