What Happens If Someone Dies In A Car Accident?

what to do if someone dies in a car accident

What should be the best course of action if someone dies in a car accident? Here is some advice from top lawyers

Road accidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people aged 1-54. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an average of 38,000 people die in crashes on U.S. roadways every year. Ironically, these accidents occur not because the roads are inherently unsafe, but due to others factors, including negligence on the part of some drivers and mechanical failure.

Losing a loved one in a car accident, especially where the death resulted from the negligence of another driver, can be both heartbreaking and traumatic. While it is impossible to revive the dead, the survivors of a driver or passenger killed in a car accident may have grounds to institute criminal charges or file a wrongful death lawsuit against the at-fault driver (and their insurance carrier).

This article provides insights about various options open to the family or estate of the deceased person.

Please note that only the family of the deceased such as their surviving spouse, child(ren) or parents (if there’s no surviving spouse or children) can initiate legal actions against the at-fault driver. In the absence of family members, the deceased’s estate may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the responsible party.

Instituting Criminal Charges Against The “At-Fault” Driver

Depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, the at-fault driver may face criminal charges such as vehicular manslaughter for their role in the death of the victim of a car accident. However, not every car accident resulting in death will leave the “at-fault” driver with criminal liability.

The decision whether or not to charge the at-fault driver with a crime rests with the local district attorney. The local district attorney will thoroughly assess the circumstances surrounding the accident and the eventual death to determine whether the “at-fault” driver is criminally culpable in the death.

To determine fault, district attorneys will consider whether the at-fault driver was driving recklessly or driving under influence when the accident occurred. Driving under influence is an offense across all the states in the United States. A driver who is impaired by drugs or alcohol will likely lose control over the vehicle, a negligent act that may lead to a fatal accident.

District attorneys also consider whether the driver was driving in an egregious violation of traffic laws and driving rules such as extreme speeding or “road rage.” A driver that failed to exercise a level of caution a reasonable person would under the same circumstances either by driving under influence, speeding or distracted by a mobile electronic device will likely face criminal charges.

However, criminal charges are less likely to result from a fatal accident caused by a factor out of a driver’s control such as unexpected mechanical failure, poor road conditions, or an “Act of God” 

Filing A Civil Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against The Responsible Party

After a car accident resulting in the death of a loved one, the surviving family members of the victim have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party, seeking financial compensation to cover all the damage suffered due to the death of the victim.

To succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit, you must be able to prove liability. There must be supportive evidence that the accident occurred due to the wrongful or negligent actions of someone other than the deceased person.

If it is proven that the car accident resulted from the careless or reckless actions of a driver, the driver (and by extension their insurance company) will have legal liability for the wrongful death of the person or people killed in the accident.

Who Else Can Be Liable For A Wrongful Death Apart From A Driver?

Interestingly, one or more parties may be liable for the death of the victim of a car accident. Experienced wrongful death attorneys can determine if other parties other than the at-fault driver can be held liable for the accident.

The lawyer investigating the case may consider whether the accident occurred due to:

Mechanical failure: Sometimes, a mechanical failure of a part of a vehicle may occur due to product defect.  A manufacturer of “unreasonably dangerous” car parts may be liable for product liability.

Over-serving alcohol: In some states like Pennsylvania, it is illegal for bars and restaurants to serve alcohol to a patron who is “visibly intoxicated.” A business that violates that law can be held liable for wrongful death if the patron goes ahead to cause a fatal drunk driving accident.

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What Damages Can Be Awarded To The Family Or Estate Of A Victim Of Wrongful Death In A Car Accident?

If you are legally eligible to bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of your loved one, then you may be able to claim damages including:

Medical expenses: Note that not all fatal accidents result in instantaneous death. Some victims may live long enough to receive a few days or weeks of medical treatment before they finally gave up.

  • Lost wages and benefits
  • Loss of care or companionship
  • Pain and suffering the deceased endured before their eventual death
  • Funeral and burial costs

If you are thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit against a driver responsible for the death of your loved one, it is advisable to act on time as most states put time limits on when a family of a victim of a fatal accident can file a lawsuit against the at-fault party.