What Is the Potential Civil Liability? Are There Criminal Sanctions?
When your loved one dies in a motor vehicle accident caused by someone else’s recklessness or carelessness, your life changes forever. Even though nothing can bring them back, you still have the right to hold the wrongdoer accountable for their actions. What can you expect to recover in a wrongful death lawsuit? Can the wrongdoer be criminally prosecuted for the fatal accident?
Recovering Damages After the Wrongful Death of a Loved One in a Car Accident
Though the laws vary somewhat from state to state, every jurisdiction allows certain survivors to seek compensation in court for losses incurred because of the accidental death of a loved one. The lawsuit seeking monetary compensation, referred to as a wrongful death claim, must be filed within the period of time known as the “statute of limitations.” The statute of limitations is governed by state law and varies from state to state, but no jurisdiction requires the lawsuit to be filed less than a year from the date of death.
In some states, the lawsuit must be filed by the estate of the deceased, whereas other states allow survivors to file on their own behalf. The rules also vary from state to state with respect to who is eligible to file for and recover damages (monetary compensation) after a wrongful or accidental death:
- The spouse and any minor children are generally permitted to file a wrongful death claim in every state.
- Some, but not all, states allow an adult child to recover compensation after the death of a parent.
- Some, but not all, states allow parents, grandparents, siblings, and more distant relatives to recover damages. As a general rule, though, there’s a hierarchy for recovery of those damages. A parent may recover damages only if there’s no surviving spouse or children; grandparents and siblings typically cannot recover unless there’s no surviving spouse, child, or parent; and so on.
- A few states allow an unrelated person to bring a claim for damages upon showing the court that they were financially dependent on the deceased.
What Types of Damages Are Available in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Caused by a Car Accident?
As with all aspects of a wrongful death claim, the specific provisions governing the compensation available after an accidental death vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. As a general rule, though, damages are considered to be economic, noneconomic, or punitive:
- Economic damages are those that are easily calculated, typically based on tangible losses. Economic damages in a wrongful death lawsuit typically include:
- The loss of any financial support the deceased would have provided
- The loss of any fringe benefits, such as medical insurance or retirement income, that would have benefited survivors
- The loss of an inheritance because of the accidental death
- The loss of any services the deceased would have provided in or around the home, including housekeeping, meal preparation, childcare, and yard maintenance
- Any medical expenses incurred (but not reimbursed by insurance) as a consequence of the accident
- Funeral and burial costs
- Noneconomic damages are less specific and more difficult to determine. In a wrongful death claim, they can include:
- Compensation for mental or emotional pain and suffering
- Loss of companionship or consortium
- Loss of the love, guidance, advice, protection, care, training, and nurturing of the decedent
- Punitive damages are unrelated to actual losses but are designed to sanction the defendant for particularly egregious conduct. They are awarded in wrongful death cases only in rare instances where the defendant acted with willful malice or gross negligence.
Criminal Penalties for Fatal Car Accidents
Laws regarding potential criminal liability also vary on a state-by-state basis. Most states have laws governing negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter arising out of motor vehicle collisions, with a conviction for involuntary manslaughter typically carrying a heavier penalty.
The difference between negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter centers on the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the fatal accident. With negligent homicide, it must be shown only that a reasonable person would have known that their behavior was dangerous. With involuntary manslaughter, it must be shown that the defendant acted recklessly or in wanton or total disregard for the risk that their behavior posed.
After the wrongful death of a loved one in an automobile accident, you may be able to pursue compensation for your losses in a civil action. The wrongdoer may also be criminally responsible in limited situations.