This blog post describes what happens when someone dies in a car accident. If your loved one has died in an accident, the process to recover damages is different than if you were to seek compensation for your own injuries. Retaining a wrongful death attorney can help ease the burden of figuring out what comes next.
In most cases, the police will investigate the scene of a fatal accident immediately. However, if no one calls the police, under state law, you must notify the police of a fatal accident.
When an officer arrives at the scene of an accident, they interview those involved in the accident—both drivers and passengers—if they can speak to the officer. The officer will also interview any witnesses to the accident.
The police report should also include a description of the damage to each vehicle involved in the accident, whether there were skid marks or damage to property, a description of what led up to the accident based on testimony from those involved and witnesses, and a description of any injuries.
Additionally, the police report will describe any traffic offenses that might have caused the accident and whether issues caused by the accident could cause injury to others, such as debris on the road, downed trees or utility poles, or the release of hazardous chemicals.
If the officer believes that the driver who caused the accident committed a crime, the officer will include that and may arrest the person who caused the accident. For example, if the driver who caused the accident was driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding excessively, or driving distracted, the officer could arrest the driver.
While a police report is not the final word on whose fault the accident was, it goes a long way toward helping investigators determine fault. Once police investigators determine what caused the accident, they can determine who was at fault.
In addition to the at-fault driver, there may be others who share liability for the accident, especially if the at-fault driver was driving a commercial vehicle and was on the clock.
Some parties who might share fault for a fatal accident include:
- The owner of the vehicle, if the driver is not the owner and the owner knows that the driver’s behavior is often negligent.
- The vehicle manufacturer if the vehicle malfunctioned.
- If an aftermarket part malfunctioned and caused the accident, the aftermarket part manufacturer.
- A governmental agency responsible for maintaining the roads, if a malfunctioning traffic device or poorly maintained road caused the accident.
- Another driver who might not have come into contact with your vehicle if that driver caused another driver to crash into you.
- A company owner, if an employee caused the accident while working as an employee, contractor, or freelancer.
- In cases where an outside company maintains commercial vehicles and poor maintenance was the cause of the accident, the maintenance company could share liability.
After the Investigation
Once the police investigators complete their investigation, you might have a good idea of whom to file a wrongful death claim against. If not, a wrongful death attorney can conduct a deeper investigation. The attorney might hire private investigators or question the police investigators.
The laws vary by state. In Florida and Washington, for example, the deceased’s personal representative brings the wrongful death action against the defendants. Any compensation the representative wins in a settlement or through litigation is paid to the deceased’s estate for the benefit of their heirs.
The Personal Representative
If the decedent has a will, that document guides the probate process. The will usually names a personal representative. If the decedent dies intestate—without a will—the estate goes through the probate process according to default rules and the probate court names a personal representative.
It generally takes longer for the court to name a personal representative if the decedent did not have a will. If the decedent did have a will but the court decides that the named personal representative cannot serve in that capacity, it will name a different personal representative, which also takes time.
Since the probate process can take some time regardless of whether or not your loved one had a will, it is pertinent to start probate proceedings as soon as possible. A state law called the “statute of limitations” determines how long you have to attempt a settlement or file a lawsuit for wrongful death. Since the personal representative has to file a wrongful death action, the action cannot be started until the probate court names a personal representative or authorizes a named personal representative to act on behalf of the estate.
In a wrongful death case, the deceased’s heirs can seek to recover compensation for:
- Past medical expenses incurred between the time of the accident and the decedent’s death.
- Past lost wages and benefits the decedent lost between the time of the accident and the settlement or trial award.
- Future lost wages and benefits the deceased would likely have earned had they lived.
- Loss of consortium, companionship, guidance, and protection.
- Loss of services and support.
- Emotional distress.
- Funeral, burial, and cremation expenses.
In some cases, the heirs might also recover punitive damages. Unlike the compensatory damages described above, which make the heirs financially whole again after their loved one’s death, the court orders punitive damages when the defendant’s behavior was grossly negligent or intentional. Punitive damages are the defendant’s punishment for their behavior. The court orders punitive damages in the hopes that the defendant and others will not repeat the actions that caused your loved one’s death.
If you lost a loved one in an accident, contact a car accident lawyer for a free consultation.