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Gregory Perenich
29 April 2022

​What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?

Uncertainty about what happens next can compound the trauma and grief you feel after the death of a loved one in a car accident. You may wonder how to seek justice, pay for sudden, unexpected expenses, or make decisions that affect your family’s future.

You are not alone. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 36,000 to 38,000 Americans die in car accidents every year. By turning to skilled car accident attorneys, the spouses, children, parents, and loved ones left behind can map a path forward that protects their rights and interests, and honors the life they have tragically lost.

Here’s an overview of the process of seeking accountability and financial compensation after someone dies in a car accident.

Your Rights After a Fatal Car Accident

car accident attorneyIf you lost a spouse, child, parent, or close family member in a car accident, you may take legal action against the party at fault and anyone else answerable for that party’s actions, seeking financial compensation for your loss. This is called a wrongful death action.

You may also have the right to seek further compensation on behalf of your deceased loved one’s estate, as damages for harm done to your loved one before death. This is commonly known as a survival action, typically filed in tandem with a wrongful death action.

Car accident attorneys represent surviving spouses and family members in these lawsuits.

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#1. Who is allowed to file a wrongful death and survival action?

Every state has different laws governing who may pursue a lawsuit for wrongful death and survival damages. In most states, that right belongs to the deceased victim’s surviving spouse (or domestic partner), child(ren), parent(s), or family dependents, usually in that order. In a few states, the right belongs only to a personal representative of the deceased person, who sues on behalf of any surviving spouse or family member entitled to seek financial compensation.

Whatever the law in the state where you live, it’s virtually always only possible to file one lawsuit for wrongful death/survival damages. In other words, a grieving spouse and grieving child may not file separate legal actions. Instead, one lawsuit obtains financial compensation for all parties who may have rights under the state’s law.

An experienced local car accident lawyer can explain the rules where you live relating to who can sue for wrongful death and survival damages.

#2. Who can you sue for a fatal car accident?

Generally speaking, you have a right to take legal action against anyone whose unreasonably dangerous decisions or actions contributed to the cause of the car accident that took the life of your loved one. You may also have the right to take action against other parties who, by law, must answer for those wrongful actions, even if they did not themselves engage in them.

Police investigations often reveal information about whose actions led to a fatal crash. Car accident attorneys representing surviving family members like you also frequently conduct their own investigations into the root causes of deadly accidents.

Multiple parties can have legal liability for a fatal car accident.

For instance, official and private crash investigations may reveal liability on the part of:

  • A driver whose dangerous actions behind the wheel of a car or truck caused the crash;
  • The at-fault driver’s employer, if that driver crashed a work vehicle;
  • An automotive manufacturer, if defects in a vehicle involved in the fatal accident contributed to its cause; or
  • A local or state government road agency, if a failure to design, build, or maintain safe roads caused the accident.

These are merely examples of the range of parties you and your family may have the right to sue for compensation after a fatal crash. The most reliable way to find out who should be held accountable for an accident that caused the death of your loved one is to speak with an experienced car accident attorney.

#3. What compensation can you recover for a car accident death?

Money cannot replace a life. But in our justice system, it is the only way to compensate for wrongful death. And while it might seem unnatural to translate the loss into dollars and cents, the funds recoverable in a wrongful death and survival action can help a mourning family pay for expenses, replace lost income, and rebuild after tragedy.

The financial compensation you can seek after a fatal car accident varies widely from state to state, based on each state’s particular laws. Here you must consider wrongful death actions and survival actions separately.

Potential Wrongful Death Action Damages

An action for wrongful death seeks damages for the loss suffered by the surviving spouse and family. State laws vary in whether those losses are limited only to the pecuniary (or financial) impact of a death, or whether they may also include the spouse and family’s pain and suffering.

Depending upon where you live, a wrongful death action may result in compensation for:

  • Loss of your loved one’s income, including wages, employment benefits, disability benefits, and future earning potential;
  • Loss of the value of services your loved one provided to the household;
  • Expenses caused by your loved one’s death, such as funeral and burial costs;
  • Loss of your loved one’s companionship or guidance;
  • Loss of consortium with a spouse;
  • Pain and suffering you have suffered as a result of the death of your loved one; and
  • Punitive damages to punish the at-fault party’s wrongful actions.

Ask an experienced car accident attorney about the types and amounts of wrongful death damages allowable in your state.

Potential Survival Action Damages

A survival action seeks damages for the harm your loved one suffered before death. As such, the money recoverable in a survival action belongs to your loved one’s estate, which distributes it according to the law of your state or your loved one’s will.

Survival action damages may include:

  • Costs of medical care for injuries your loved one suffered in the car accident, and which eventually took your loved one’s life;
  • Other expenses and financial losses caused by the car accident, such as the cost of repairing or replacing a damaged vehicle or other personal property;
  • Your loved one’s lost wages and employment benefits before death;
  • Your loved one’s pain and suffering from car accident injuries before death; and
  • Any other rights to sue for damages, unrelated to the fatal car accident, that belonged to your loved one.

A skilled car accident lawyer can explain the potential survival action damages recoverable in your state, and how your state’s laws and your loved one’s will (if any) may affect their distribution.

#4. How long after a fatal car accident do you have to sue?

In every state, a law called the statute of limitations sets a time limit on filing a lawsuit seeking damages for a fatal car accident. If you fail to take legal action before this deadline, you may lose your right to seek financial compensation for your loss.

Statute of limitation for wrongful death and survival actions vary widely depending on the state where you live, the circumstances of the fatal crash, and who you have the right to sue. In some cases (such as when a government entity faces liability), the deadline for taking action may expire in as little as a few months. In others, you and your family may have several years to sue.

It’s not always obvious how much time you may have to file a wrongful death and survival action seeking justice and compensation for your loved one’s death. That is why it is critically important to speak with an experienced car accident attorney in your area as soon as possible after your tragic loss-the attorney may need to take immediate action to protect your rights.

#5. Will you have to go to court over a wrongful death claim?

Most wrongful death and survival actions involving fatal car accidents settle out of court before trial. In a typical settlement, the injured party (you or your loved one’s estate) receives money to release the at-fault party from further financial liability. A settlement does not affect whether the at-fault party faces criminal charges (see below).

Of course, it is always possible for a fatal crash case not to settle and instead go to trial. Rare though that is, experienced car accident lawyers know they must always prepare their cases as if they will end up in front of a judge and jury. Diligent and knowledgeable case preparation ensures that no matter what direction a fatal car accident case takes, surviving loved ones like you will occupy the best possible position to pay your expenses and rebuild.

Criminal Charges and Fatal Car Accidents

Fatal car accidents frequently lead to criminal charges against the party or parties at fault. Law enforcement and prosecutors in your area decide whether to bring those charges, and they alone decide how to pursue or resolve them. In other words, a potential prosecution of the at-fault party in the crash that killed your loved one is separate and distinct from your potential lawsuit for wrongful death and survival damages.

Of course, that’s not to say you cannot have a role to play in the criminal process. A district attorney may ask for your assistance in proving its case (if, for example, you witnessed the accident). The laws in the state where you live may also allow you, as a spouse or family member of a deceased crash victim, to tell a court or jury about the impact of your loss.

But unlike your right to sue for wrongful death and survival damages, you do not get to decide how a criminal prosecution ends or what constitutes a fair and appropriate outcome.

Experienced car accident lawyers assist clients in your situation in coordinating and interacting with law enforcement and prosecutors conducting a criminal prosecution. They also protect their clients’ right to see justice done not just in the criminal process but in separate wrongful death and survival actions seeking financial compensation.

Insurance and Fatal Car Accidents

Insurance plays a role in the aftermath of virtually every fatal car accident. It may serve to pay some of your loved one’s final medical or other expenses. Or it may pay lump-sum death benefits.

Here are two important points to keep in mind about insurance after a fatal car accident takes the life of your loved one.

You probably have a right to sue for wrongful death even if your loved one had life insurance.

In most cases, receiving life insurance benefits does not affect your right to seek financial compensation through a wrongful death and survival action. You can usually still sue the at-fault party for money damages if life insurance covered your loved one. One possible exception to this is if your loved one received a workers’ compensation death benefit-but to find out, you should always consult with an experienced car accident attorney right away.

Do not agree to speak or settle with the at-fault party’s insurance carrier without first consulting an experienced lawyer.

The at-fault party’s insurance company may try to contact you to offer a settlement of your potential wrongful death and survival claim. Beware of any such call. The insurance company may want to trick you into agreeing to an unreasonably low settlement before you understand your rights. Do not agree to or sign anything without first speaking to a skilled car accident attorney.

Call on an Experienced Lawyer After a Fatal Crash

Car accident attorney, Gregory Perenich

If your loved one died in a car accident, a skilled car accident attorney in your area can answer your questions, provide guidance, and help you get justice and financial compensation for your loss. Contact a car accident lawyer today for a free consultation.