Every year, millions of 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?
When Someone Dies in a Car Accident, the “At-Fault” Driver May Face Criminal Charges, but Not Always
Car accidents are caused by a variety of factors. One of the most common crash causes is when a driver acts carelessly or recklessly. If that accident leads to the death of someone else, the driver can face civil liability in addition to criminal charges, such as vehicular manslaughter.
Not every accident that results in death, however, will leave the “at-fault” driver with criminal liability. The decision whether to criminally charge a driver in a fatal car accident rests with the local district attorney. This government employee 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 driving 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 a hit-and-run crash, 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 something out of a driver’s control, such as poor road conditions, unpredictable mechanical failure, or an “Act of God.”
When Someone is Killed in an Accident, the Estate of the Deceased Person May File a Wrongful Death Action
If someone 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 they lived. Here are the relevant considerations:
Determining Who is Legally Liable For the Person's Death
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. This is one of the reasons why you need to hire a personal injury lawyer after a car accident.
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 their insurance policy) will have legal liability for the wrongful death of anyone killed. Experienced Philadelphia car accident attorneys, however, know not to only look at the “other driver” when searching for parties with legal liability for a tragic loss of life. Instead, they investigate accidents to determine all of the parties who bear “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 isillegal 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 they are 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 operating vehicles in poor condition.
Every car accident case is different. An experienced Philadelphia wrongful death lawyer knows to look deep into the facts to identify all parties who may have contributed to the tragic death of your loved one.
Only the Personal Representative of the Deceased Person’s Estate Can Bring the Action
There can only be one wrongful death lawsuit for personal injury damages 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. If there was no will, Pennsylvania laws address 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.”
A Wrongful Death Action Can Request a Variety of Damages After Someone Dies in a Car Accident
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 result in 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, their loss could 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 the loss of consortium as well as the loss of a partner and companion.
The Value of a Wrongful Death Action Also Depends on the Financial Resources of the Liable Party
Every family that loses a loved one in 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 insurance limits covering the other driver 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 that their lawyers will do the necessary due diligence to determine the full scope of potential liability.
After Someone Dies in a Car Accident, it is Crucial to Hire an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney
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 need to find a lawyer with the 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? Consider the following scenarios:
Insurance Companies Usually Attempt to Shortchange the Family.
After a fatal car accident, insurance companies that cover 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 an initial settlement offer does not reflect the full amount of money that the family deserves as compensation for the tragic loss of life due to a car accident. Families should never accept these offers (which usually come with onerous legal strings attached), without first consulting with an experienced wrongful death car accident injury attorney.
A Dedicated Wrongful Death Attorney Can Determine Who is Liable.
As we have described above, the immense tragedy of a tragic 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.
The Most Skilled Negotiators and Trial Lawyers Will Successfully Protect Your Rights.
Wrongful death lawsuits arising out of car accidents frequently involve large damages claims, some amounting to millions of dollars. With that much at stake, families should entrust their legal representation to an attorney who has successfully gone 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, reach out to 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.