Navigating Wrongful Death Claims after a Fatal Car AccidentBy Gabriel Levin on September 5th, 2018
If someone you loved has been killed in a car accident, chances are, you’re confused, struggling, and unsure of how to proceed from here. You’ve heard about wrongful death lawsuits, and you think that you might have the right to compensation for your loved one’s death, but you aren’t even sure of how to proceed. By working with an attorney who specializes in wrongful death lawsuits, you’ll put yourself in a better position to deal with the difficult journey ahead.
By the Numbers
Every year, nearly 1.3 million people die in accidents on the road—an average of more than 3,000 per day. More than 400,000 of the victims are under the age of 25. In the United States alone, approximately 32,000 people die each year due to accidents on the road. Their loss represents a gaping hole in their family’s lives, and it’s not always just an emotional loss: many people end up with significant financial loss along with the rest of the pain and suffering. Consider the following:
- The average cost of a funeral is between $7,000 and $10,000. This can be a staggering amount, especially when the individual didn’t carry life insurance (as is the case with many young people, who assume that they have time to prepare for that eventuality).
- The average annual salary in America is around $51,000—and the earning potential for that amount is lost when a family member dies. For many American families, who rely on two income earners in order to make ends meet, this loss can be catastrophic.
- When the primary breadwinner for the family is killed, it can be difficult for the non-earning member to increase their earnings to compensate. Partners who have previously been stay at home mothers or fathers, in particular, often struggle to increase their earning potential to an adequate level to provide from their families, especially if they lack the experience or education necessary to progress in their fields.
Losing a loved one in a car accident isn’t just devastating emotionally. It can also cause financial devastation. In many cases, however, you’ll find that a wrongful death settlement can help cover the expenses associated with that death, giving you a little more time to get your balance back and get your feet back under you without having to worry about your expenses.
Your loved one has been a victim of a fatal car accident, but does that mean that you can get a settlement? According to the state of Pennsylvania, wrongful death occurs when one person’s death occurs as the result of the negligence, reckless behavior, or violent behavior of another individual. This certainly applies to reckless or neglectful behavior behind the wheel of a car, including:
- Distracted driving, including both texting and driving and engaging in other unsafe behaviors while behind the wheel
- Reckless driving, including excessive speeding, running red lights, and more
- Driving while intoxicated
- Failure to yield
- Improperly loaded or poorly maintained trucks and other vehicles
Some accidents are impossible for the drivers involved in the crash to prevent. In other cases, however, accidents are caused by negligence or reckless behavior—and in those cases, you may have the right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit.
Wrongful death lawsuits aren’t always filed against the individuals involved in the accident, either. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the accident, you may have grounds for a wrongful death suit against other individuals. There are several causes of wrongful death accidents that aren’t related to the drivers, including:
- Poorly maintained roads that caused the accident
- Improper signs that led to confusion or congestion
- Faulty vehicles released onto the market that didn’t provide adequate safety for their drivers and passengers
- Trucking companies who require their drivers to stay on the road beyond the legal limits or who insist on unsafe driving conditions
Wrongful death lawsuits can also be filed if your loved one died while riding in paid conveyance—that is, if they were in an Uber, a taxi, or another vehicle where unsafe driving behaviors took place. In many cases, understanding who was at fault for the accident can be a complicated issue. If you’re struggling to define whether or not your loved one’s death qualifies as a wrongful death case, consider whether or not they would have grounds for a personal injury claim if they were still alive. The same circumstances apply to both types of lawsuits. The only difference is that in this case, the person injured is unable to make the claim themselves.
Do You Have a Wrongful Death Case in Pennsylvania?
If your loved one died as a result of a car accident in the state of Pennsylvania, ask some of these key questions to determine whether or not you have the right to a wrongful death lawsuit and compensation for your loss.
Who was at fault for the accident? If the accident was ruled as being the fault of your loved one by the officer on the scene, you likely can’t hold the other driver or drivers responsible for their death. In some cases, you may be able to win a partial settlement from the insurance companies involved even if your loved one was partially at fault. Pennsylvania has “comparative fault” laws, under which it will be decided what percentage your loved one was at fault for the accident. Their percentage will then be deducted from the total amount of a damages award. Note that if your loved one was more than 50% responsible for the accident, you probably won’t be able to receive compensation through a wrongful death settlement.
What were the circumstances of the accident? In some cases, the driver of the other car may have done everything reasonably possible in order to prevent the accident. If you’re not sure whether or not your loved one’s death qualifies as a wrongful death accident, a free consultation with a wrongful death attorney can help you determine whether or not you should pursue your case.
How long has it been since the accident? In the state of Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations on a wrongful death lawsuit is two years. This means that if more than two years has passed since the accident, you can no longer pursue a lawsuit. On the other hand, if you are within that two-year limit, you can still file for a wrongful death lawsuit. While there may be some exceptions to this two-year limit, it’s important to file a wrongful death claim as soon as possible in order to ensure that the courts will hear the case, and to ensure relevant evidence is preserved and collected promptly.
What is your relationship to the deceased? According to Pennsylvania law, only the person responsible for handling the estate of the deceased individual is able to file a claim. If, however, that individual chooses not to file the claim within the first six months after the death, any of the legal beneficiaries of the deceased are able to file the claim. This claim is filed on behalf of all of the beneficiaries, and the settlement will be divided, at the end of the case, among the beneficiaries of the deceased individual’s estate.
What Damages Can Be Included in a Wrongful Death Settlement?
Losing a loved one is an expensive proposition. While a wrongful death settlement won’t replace them, it can help deal with many of the expenses associated with their loss. This may include:
- Hospital and medical expenses: Was your loved one hospitalized prior to their death? Were there medical expenses that built up before their death? Medical expenses can often be daunting. They can, however, be included as part of the wrongful death settlement.
- Funeral and burial expenses: Reasonable costs to pay for the funeral and burial expenses of your loved one may also be included as part of the settlement.
- Household contributions: Different people contribute to their families in different ways. Some are breadwinners, contributing to the earnings of their families. Other members of the family may contribute by staying at home: caring for the children, taking care of the house, and other vital contributions. Both of these types of contributions are included in a wrongful death lawsuit, and compensation can be received for their loss.
- Lost benefits: In addition to bringing in money to help care for the family, many wage earners also offer insurance benefits and other contributions to the family. These amounts can be included in your wrongful death lawsuit.
- Pain and suffering: While it can be difficult to put a number on pain and suffering, this amount can help provide for your family as you move forward with your life.
- Estate administration costs: Estate administration costs include costs associated with settling the will, legal expenses, and other expenses that go along with putting the deceased’s affairs in order. Note that these expenses, as well as funeral and burial expenses, can still be collected on behalf of the estate even if the deceased doesn’t have surviving beneficiaries. On the other hand, pain and suffering, lost benefits, and household contributions can only be collected if the deceased has beneficiaries who are impacted by their loss.
The amount that you can expect from a wrongful death settlement will vary based on a number of factors, including the earning potential and contributions of your family member, the circumstances of the accident, and the expenses associated with their death. It’s important to work with a lawyer as you navigate this difficult process, since your lawyer will be able to give you a better idea of exactly what to expect from your own case.
How Does Pennsylvania’s No-Fault Law Impact Wrongful Death Cases?
In the state of Pennsylvania, drivers must turn first to their own personal injury protection insurance policies to acquire compensation for car accidents, including medical expenses, car repairs, and lost wages from work. It doesn’t matter who is ruled at fault for the accident in these cases, especially where property damage is minimal. It is only when the expenses associated with the accident exceed the amount of that coverage that it is possible to pursue further action against the driver who was responsible for the accident.
In wrongful death cases, however, the no-fault law does not apply. The expenses associated with the death typically far exceed the maximum coverage of personal injury protection policies. In this case, it is possible to pursue legal action against the individual or company who has been ruled responsible for the death.
Is a Lawyer Too Expensive?
Many people avoid taking on a wrongful death lawsuit because they fear it will be too expensive. They’ve already lost a loved one, and chances are, the insurance company is offering them a settlement. That settlement, however, is often the lowest number an insurance company feels that they can get away with offering. Insurance companies are responsible for paying out a certain amount, but they may choose to limit that amount as much as possible, especially if they catch you when you are grieving, struggling, and can convince you to sign the settlement paperwork. Instead, consult with a lawyer before signing. They’ll give you a better idea of what you should expect from your lawsuit.
Your initial consultation with a lawyer doesn’t have to be expensive. At The Levin Firm, we’ll offer you a free consultation to discuss your case and your options. In many cases, we can receive payment on a contingent fee basis—that is, we don’t get paid until you win your case. We’ll take our fees out of the wrongful death settlement or judgment, allowing you to get the justice you need without having to worry about how you’re going to afford an attorney.
If you’ve lost a loved one in a car accident and need to know whether or not you have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit, contact us online or call us at (215) 825-5183. We’ll schedule a free consultation to discuss your loved one’s accident, learn more about who was at fault, and determine whether or not you have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit.