What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?
Every year, around 35,000 people lose their lives in traffic accidents in the United States. Fatal traffic accidents happen for a variety of reasons, many of them beyond the control of the victim.
For the survivors of a fatal crash, left with their own injuries and the emotional trauma of losing a loved one, it can be difficult to know where to turn. What happens when someone dies in a car accident? Can I recover compensation?
These are common questions we receive from clients trying to figure out what to do next. If one of your loved ones died in a car accident, we can help you figure out the next steps.
What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?
Immediately after an accident, and after everyone has received medical attention, there are a couple of things that happen. First, depending on the circumstances of the accident, police may investigate the cause of the crash. In some cases, this may lead to criminal charges against the at-fault driver.
Meanwhile, the victim’s family makes funeral arrangements and manages the deceased’s estate. Those tasks alone are difficult, especially when a family is grieving.
As a result, we understand that it is difficult to consider the time and cost to file a lawsuit. However, obtaining a settlement is an important option that may be available to help pay for end-of-life medical care and other expenses after the fatal accident.
The At-Fault Driver May Go to Jail
When it comes to the at-fault driver, it isn’t always clear what happens when someone dies in a car accident. Whether anyone goes to jail after a fatal accident depends on the facts of each case.
Usually, an at-fault driver will not go to jail if factors outside their control caused the accident. For example, a driver probably won’t face criminal charges if bad road conditions cause an accident and both drivers were following all road laws. Similarly, a driver likely won’t face criminal charges for vehicle issues like a brake failure if they properly maintained their car.
If criminal behavior is present, like negligence or recklessness, then the state may press charges against the at-fault driver. Ultimately, it will depend on whether the district attorney believes the driver was culpable in causing the death. In most cases, the DA will consider whether:
- The driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the wreck;
- The driver was speeding, driving aggressively, engaging in road rage, or otherwise engaging in reckless behavior; and
- The presence of flukes or “acts of God” outside either driver’s control.
A DA will also consider whether the driver was distracted (e.g., by texting) or failing to obey road signs, like a stop sign. Failing to follow driving laws may be evidence of negligence or impairment that increases a driver’s chances of going to jail.
The Deceased’s Estate Can Bring a Wrongful Death Action
Traditionally, when a plaintiff died, their causes of action died with them. However, when someone dies in a car accident, Florida law permits the estate of a deceased person to bring a wrongful death claim. A “wrongful death” is one caused by the negligent or wrongful actions of another person, and a wrongful death action allows the estate of the deceased person to recover damages as compensation for the loss of life.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Claim in Florida?
In Florida, the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate is the only person eligible to bring a wrongful death claim. A person’s will usually appoints a personal representative. If there is no will or the will does not appoint a representative, the court will appoint one.
Elements of Wrongful Death Claim in Florida
Section 769.19 of the Florida Statutes provides the right of action for wrongful death. To succeed on a wrongful death action, the personal representative must prove three elements:
- Conduct constituting a wrongful act or negligence;
- The wrongful conduct caused the person’s death; and
- The wrongful conduct would have created a legal claim by the deceased person if they had not died.
In other words, the deceased person must have had a cause of action to bring a lawsuit, even though they were unable to act on it themselves.
Damages Available When Someone Dies in a Car Accident
If you get into a car accident and someone dies, you may be able to recover a settlement through a wrongful death action. In Florida, there are several types of damages available after a fatal car accident, including:
- Medical bills,
- Funeral expenses,
- “Loss of support” and “loss of companionship” damages,
- Lost wages, and
- Loss of estate value.
In some cases, the family may elect instead to pursue a survival claim. Rather than compensate the family for their losses, a survival claim provides compensation for the deceased person’s losses.
The victim of a fatal car accident may not die at the scene. In some cases, they are given medical treatment and maybe on life support for days or months. The cost of the ongoing treatment and hospital stay can add up to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If this occurs, a survival claim may be more appropriate than a wrongful death claim. Your attorney can help you determine which claim makes the most sense in your case.
Should I Hire an Attorney When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?
The short answer is yes. Obtaining a fair settlement from an insurance company is impossible without an attorney. Having an experienced attorney negotiating on your behalf shows the insurance company you are serious. An attorney can also help you understand what happens when someone dies in a car accident.
If there is no insurance involved, a car accident attorney can help you figure out who is liable and how to maximize your recovery. Handling the legal process is complicated and can be overwhelming in the aftermath of a fatal accident. An attorney is someone you can trust to handle your case while you work on physically and emotionally recovering.
Speak with a Tampa Car Accident Attorney
The attorneys at Abrahamson & Uiterwyk have over 30 years of experience representing the victims of car accidents, motorcycle accidents, and more. If you were in a car accident and someone died, we can help you navigate your legal case.