The sudden and tragic loss of a loved one devastates families and leaves them grieving. The death of a family member is difficult enough, but learning the loss was preventable makes things worse.
If someone you loved died in a car accident, you might have the legal right to bring a wrongful death claim against the responsible party depending on your relationship with the deceased.
Suing someone cannot bring back your loved one or take away your pain. However, holding the responsible party accountable for their negligence can provide a feeling of justice and leave surviving family members with compensation to help relieve the financial loss associated with the death of a loved one.
You can meet with an experienced wrongful death lawyer to discuss your case and learn about your next steps. Until you have the chance to meet with an attorney, we provide a general overview and answer questions about the process of filing a wrongful death claim after a car accident. and comes with many questions for
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim After a Car Accident?
Wrongful death claims are a type of personal injury claim that involve eligible survivors holding someone responsible for the death of their loved one. However, not just anyone can file a wrongful death claim.
State laws about who can file a claim vary, and they often closely align with a state’s intestate laws. In most states, surviving spouses can initiate a claim. If no spouse exists, children or parents can typically file a claim. Finally, other family members might have a claim if the deceased has no spouse, no children, or their parents have passed.
Wrongful death claims have a reputation for being complex. For example, even if you have a viable claim, you technically might not be able to file the claim. Some states only allow a personal representative of the deceased person’s estate to file the claim.
Any compensation recovered goes to the estate, where it gets distributed based on the state’s intestate laws. Calling a lawyer is the best way to find out if you have a legitimate wrongful death claim in the wake of losing a loved one in a car accident. A wrongful death lawyer can also advise you on the specific requirements related to who files the claim.
Statutes of Limitations in Wrongful Death Claims
You must act quickly to file a wrongful death claim after a loved one dies in a car accident. Each state has a time limit, legally referred to as a statute of limitations, in which eligible family members must file a lawsuit to recover compensation for their loss.
In many states, the wrongful death statute of limitations is two years. However, it’s longer in some states, and other states only allow a year. It’s best to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible so you do not miss the deadline.
The laws in most states allow for some rare exceptions in which a court might extend the deadline. This typically is related to the at-fault party leaving the state, hiding out, or offering a false identity during the police report.
A looming deadline should concern you, so discuss your case today with an experienced lawyer who can advise you on your legal options.
Investigating the Fatal Car Accident that Took Your Loved One
The details of a fatal car accident do not always reveal the complete picture of how someone died. Sometimes witnesses provide contradicting stories. At-fault drivers sometimes lie and try to shift blame to avoid financial liability. Once you hire an experienced lawyer to file a wrongful death claim after a car accident, they can begin investigating.
Lawyers, often with the help of an investigator, can dig into the details of an accident to uncover more facts and determine exactly how your loved one died. This includes examining the police report and witness statements, contacting additional witnesses, and gathering more evidence.
Depending on the location of the car accident, footage from a traffic cam or surveillance camera could have recorded the crash. Cell phone records might reveal that the at-fault driver was texting.
Ultimately, you can expect your lawyer to seek information that supports your case and gives you and your family the best chance of recovering damages.
Initiating a Wrongful Death Claim After a Car Accident
Once your lawyer determines you have a viable claim and investigates to uncover all the facts, initiating the wrongful death claim with a demand letter is the next step in the process.
Your lawyer will prepare a demand letter and send it to the other party’s auto insurance provider. The demand letter requests compensation based on the limit of the policy.
Wrongful death claims typically include compensation for:
- Funeral expenses
- Burial or cremation costs
- Medical expenses from the time of the car accident up until the time of death
- Lost future income and support
- Pain and suffering for surviving family members
- Loss of parental guidance for surviving dependent children
- Other applicable noneconomic damages
The demand letter initiates the wrongful death claim and often serves as a starting point for settlement negotiations. Both sides have an incentive to avoid going to trial because litigation is time-consuming and expensive.
Discovery in Wrongful Death Cases
Discovery refers to the formal exchange of information between both sides of a case as they prepare for trial.
Discovery can include various activities, such as:
- Depositions. A deposition is a formal meeting where lawyers ask witnesses questions under oath. In a wrongful death claim after a car accident, lawyers might request to depose the doctor of the deceased, the medical examiner, eyewitnesses, accident reconstruction specialists, and other experts. Your lawyer will depose those who can establish and prove the negligence of the defendant(s) and the scope of economic and noneconomic losses resulting from the wrongful death.
- Document production. Lawyers on both sides typically request all documents related to the accident. Both sides usually have the official accident report and witness statements collected by law enforcement. However, they must share information about new eyewitnesses, experts, and other relevant evidence.
- Issuing subpoenas. In most car accident cases, lawyers need documents from outside sources to establish various elements related to the claim. It’s common for lawyers to issue subpoenas during discovery to obtain financial records, employment records, medical records, cell phone records, and any other documents that might support a wrongful death claim.
Proving Negligence in a Wrongful Death Claim After a Car Accident
The success of your wrongful death claim hinges on whether your lawyer can prove negligence. The purpose of investigating the accident and gathering evidence before and during discovery is to uncover facts that prove each element of negligence.
Here is a broad overview of each element and how it relates to a fatal car accident claim.
Duty of Care
The defendant must have had a duty of care to the deceased. In car accident cases, this element of negligence rarely gets questioned. Regardless of the state, everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car has a duty of care toward others who share the road with them.
This includes not only other drivers but pedestrians and cyclists too. The driver who caused the car accident that killed your family member had a duty of care to operate their vehicle in a safe manner that did not cause harm to others.
Breach of Duty
In car accident cases, a breach of duty often involves one or more violations of traffic laws. As soon as a driver is not driving safely, they are often not obeying the rules of the road.
Examples of driver behaviors that constitute a breach of duty in a car accident include:
- Speeding and other aggressive driving behaviors
- Inattentive/distracted driving
- Driving under the influence
- Disobeying traffic control devices like stop lights and stop signs
Other times, a negligent driver can breach their duty of care without directly breaking the law. For example, consider a situation where someone worked for 14 hours and fell asleep at the wheel, causing a fatal accident. It’s not illegal to drive while you’re tired, but it is careless and can be grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Disputes over causation frequently occur in wrongful death claims. Even if your lawyer established a breach of duty, they must also show that the breach of duty led to the death of your loved one.
Sometimes causation is clear. For example, a drunk driver ran a stoplight and struck your loved one’s vehicle. Other times causation can be more tricky because multiple defendants are involved, or the deceased had an underlying condition that caused the death after injury.
In any situation, an experienced lawyer knows how to make the causal link in a wrongful death claim to give their clients the best chance of recovering damages for the loss of their loved one.
You must show that you suffered damages due to the death of your loved one to prove negligence. The unexpected and tragic loss of a loved one causes major economic and emotional issues for surviving family members. Some situations are worse than others, but in most cases, showing harm is relatively straightforward.
Proof of all the elements of negligence in a car accident claim provides leverage for negotiating with the insurance company. However, you need the evidence in place to support the claim if your case goes to trial. A judge and/or jury will evaluate the testimony they hear to determine if the plaintiff has sufficiently proved each element of negligence before they decide on the case.
How Long Does It Take to Resolve a Wrongful Death Claim?
Nobody can tell you with certainty how long your case will take. Two main factors influence the timeline of a wrongful death claim: litigation and the number of defendants.
Claims that go to trial take much longer to resolve than claims that settle.
Your lawyer can evaluate your case and give you an idea of what challenges your case might pose and what kind of timeline is likely to settle or litigate your claim.
The number of defendants also typically increases the timeline of a wrongful death claim. The more parties involved in a car accident claim, the more difficult it is to reach a settlement agreement.
Parties repeatedly shift blame and do what they can to avoid liability, sometimes shutting down the possibility of settlement. Going to trial with multiple defendants can be the worst-case scenario in terms of time. Multiple defendants can lead to more administrative issues. It’s more challenging to schedule witnesses, lawyers, experts, and others who need to be in the courtroom when you have to include more people. Connect with a personal injury attorney in Augusta.