What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?

Losing a loved one in a car accident often causes a great deal of trauma. Car accident deaths occur unexpectedly, often leaving you reeling. What should you do next? How can you protect your family after the loss of a loved one?

Every year, more than 35,000 people die in motor vehicle accidents across the United States, leaving their families scrambling to figure out what comes next. If you have lost a loved one in a car accident, working with a car accident lawyer may offer your best chance of recovering compensation for your loved one’s final expenses and the other financial challenges you may face because of that loss.

Investigating the Cause of an Accident

Police typically respond to the scene of fatal accidents. When they arrive at the scene, officers will prioritize several things: medical care and assistance for the people involved in the accident and the safe flow of traffic so that other drivers do not end up in serious accidents while trying to avoid the scene, for example. However, responding officers will also take time to investigate the cause of the accident.

Fatal accidents often occur due to the negligence of another driver.

Officers will:

  • Take witness accounts
  • Look at the damage to the vehicles involved in the accident
  • Take a look at the road and its conditions

Officers may note all of those conditions in the accident report.

Deeper Investigation

In some cases, the accident report may not contain all the information you need to establish liability for a car accident, or you may feel that the accident report does not contain accurate information, including information that could make another party liable for the accident. If you work with a wrongful death lawyer, a lawyer can launch a deeper investigation into all the causes of the accident.

Mechanical Failure

Sometimes, mechanical failure can cause serious vehicle issues that ultimately result in a dangerous, even fatal, collision. Mechanical failure can occur due to improper maintenance, manufacturer error, or the error of a mechanic that worked on the vehicle but did not fully take care of all repairs. For example, if the brakes lock up because a mechanic failed to repair them properly, the mechanic may bear liability for the accident.

Dangerous Employer Policies

Some people drive for a living: truck drivers, rideshare drivers, and delivery drivers, for example. Many of those drivers work for employers with specific policies related to how they handle themselves on the road: how many hours they can drive, what rules they must follow, and how they should work to protect themselves and others.

Some employers, however, may have dangerous policies that encourage their drivers to take chances on the road, from policies regarding delivery times to insisting that employees stay on the road despite dangerous conditions, illness, or exhaustion. If the employer’s policy caused the accident or contributed to it, the employer may directly share liability for the accident.

Filing a Wrongful Death Claim After a Car Accident

If you lose a loved one in a car accident, you may have the right to file a wrongful death claim. Typically, you will file your claim against the liable driver’s insurance policy.

When do you have the right to file a wrongful death claim?

In general, you have the right to file a wrongful death claim any time another driver’s negligent actions lead to a fatal accident. That includes a driver who ignored the rules of the road, drove while distracted, got behind the wheel while inebriated, or committed an act of road rage.

You may file a wrongful death claim if your loved one died at the scene of the accident. If your loved one did not die at the accident scene but later died from their injuries, you might still file a wrongful death claim. Consider whether your loved one could have filed an injury claim if they had survived the car accident. If your loved one could have filed an injury claim before their death, you may have the right to file a wrongful death claim after the accident.

Who has the right to file a wrongful death claim after a car accident?

The immediate beneficiaries of the deceased usually have the right to decide how to manage a wrongful death claim after a car accident.

If the deceased has a spouse, that spouse has the first right to file a claim. If the deceased does not have a spouse, any children have the right to file a claim; and if they have neither spouse nor children, their parents may have the legal right to pursue a wrongful death claim. When the deceased does not have family, sometimes the deceased’s estate may pursue compensation for the deceased’s final expenses.

Following the loss of a loved one, the family can file just one wrongful death claim, even when more than one person may have the same right to file a claim. The family will need to decide together how to handle the claim, when to accept a settlement offer, and how to proceed with the claim. Then, the family can decide how to divide any funds from the claim.

What damages can you recover from a wrongful death claim?

The damages you can recover from a wrongful death claim may vary. A lawyer can help you look at the financial losses your family has faced due to the loss of a loved one, but may not offer guarantees about the compensation your family can recover. Compensation may include several key elements, which you may need to consider.

Your loved one’s final expenses

Talk to a lawyer about what final expenses you might have the right to include as part of a wrongful death claim. Sometimes, you may have the right to include your loved one’s final medical costs, especially if your loved one spent some time in the hospital before death.

However, in some cases, your loved one’s health insurance company may have the right to put a lien on those funds, which means that if you file for compensation for those areas, it could prevent you from maximizing the compensation you can recover. Talk to a lawyer about how to best handle including your loved one’s medical expenses as part of a wrongful death claim.

However, your family may have the right to include funeral and burial expenses as part of the claim.

The loss of your loved one’s income

Losing the income of a family member can cause immense financial challenges, whether your loved one was the primary breadwinner for the family or provided a secondary source of income. Talk to an attorney about the loss of that income and how it has impacted your family.

The loss of services your loved one performed

In many cases, the value of the services your loved one performed for the family far outweighs the financial value of their income. Losing your loved one can mean that your family must work out how to handle those tasks, which may mean hiring someone else to perform them. Did your loved one take care of primary care for a child? Senior loved ones? Did your loved one handle the bulk of the clean-up around the house? Manage cooking and planning for meals? All of those things can add up considerably.

Loss of consortium/loss of presence

The deceased’s spouse may have the right to include loss of consortium, or the loss of the sexual and romantic relationship with the deceased, in a wrongful death claim. Other family members may have the right to include compensation for the suffering caused by the loss of a loved one’s presence: the loss of the advice a parent could provide for a child, for example, or the loss of the future with a deceased child.

When Does a Car Accident Death Mean Criminal Charges for the Liable Party?

In some cases, car accidents involving death can mean criminal charges for the party that caused the accident.

For example, the liable party may face criminal charges if:

  • The liable party deliberately committed an act of vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter.
  • The driver chose to operate the vehicle recklessly, which led to the accident.
  • The driver chose to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Generally, drivers will not face criminal charges due to circumstances outside their control that cause an accident, including dangerous road conditions, mechanical failure the driver could not have predicted, or other variables, including swerving to miss another driver. However, drivers who deliberately engage in reckless and dangerous behaviors may face charges.

Do criminal charges impact a wrongful death claim?

If the driver that caused your loved one’s car accident faces criminal charges for negligent behavior behind the wheel, it could serve as evidence in a wrongful death claim, making it easier for you to establish that the other driver caused the accident. However, you can file a civil claim against that driver’s insurance company regardless of whether the driver faces criminal charges, as long as the liable driver caused the accident.

The liable driver’s insurance company will investigate the accident to help determine whether that driver bears liability for the accident. Your lawyer can also launch an investigation, including pursuing evidence that the driver’s negligent actions caused the accident.

What to Do After Losing a Loved One in a Car Accident

When you lose a loved one in a car accident, you may feel paralyzed. What should you do next?

1. Obtain a copy of the police report.

Check to make sure, as much as you can, that the police report contains accurate information about the time, date, and location of the accident and the drivers involved. While you may not know the circumstances that led to the accident yourself, since you may not have seen the accident, you can make sure that the police report accurately reflects the information you do know about the accident.

2. Contact an attorney.

As soon after your loved one’s death as possible, get in touch with a wrongful death attorney. An attorney can help guide you through the process, including offering more information about your next steps.

3. Do not deal with the insurance company directly.

Insurance companies may use a variety of strategies to reduce the compensation they have to pay out for a personal injury or wrongful death claim, including trying to offer a low settlement soon after the death of your loved one. Before you talk to a lawyer, you may not know just how much compensation you may deserve for losing a loved one. The insurance company may pressure you to make a fast decision about a compensation offer that does not reflect your needs. Instead, let a wrongful death lawyer work with the insurance company on your behalf.

4. Come to a consensus with your family members, if possible.

If you have multiple family members who have the same right to file a wrongful death claim, you may need to talk to your lawyer together. Come to a consensus about how you will handle your claim and distribute any funds from the wrongful death claim. Your lawyer can also help you understand how any liens on the account will impact your claim.

Contact a Lawyer if You Lose a Loved One in a Car Accident

If you have lost a loved one in a car accident, working with a wrongful death attorney can make it easier for you to collect the compensation your family deserves. Contact a wrongful death lawyer to learn more about your right to compensation after a loved one’s loss.

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