What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?


Motorcycle Accident
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Car Accident

When someone dies in a car accident, it’s difficult for their loved ones to think about the future. For a while, they stay occupied with an endless to-do list. As the family transitions back to day-to-day normalcy, their life usually gets even more complicated.

Before a grieving family’s financial and personal commitments become overwhelming, it’s a good idea to consult with a legal professional. Planning for a future without a loved one is often challenging. Still, it’s an important step toward preserving the lifestyle they created together.

A family must consider their legal alternatives before circumstances compel them to dismantle their lives.

Some Families Make Lifestyle Adjustments

A loved one’s sudden death takes an immediate toll on the family. They endure unimaginable emotional upheaval. At the same time, they must accept that their lifestyle is firmly tied to their finances.

Everything doesn’t change at once, but eventually, grieving families must make tough adjustments:

  • Losing the home they love
  • Moving to a different home and an unfamiliar neighborhood.
  • Enrolling their children in a new school district
  • Losing touch with friends and neighbors.

Grieving Families Have Legal Options

When a family is grieving a loved one, it’s difficult to think about lawsuits and damage claims. At some point, they must. Money can’t bring back a loved one, but it helps families maintain the lifestyle they built together. Wrongful Death laws give families the right to recover damages from the person who caused their loved one’s accident. It’s a legal process that requires immediate attention.

The Family Must Prove Liability

To successfully pursue a wrongful death claim due to a car accident, a family must prove that the other driver is legally responsible. As with other accidents, they need evidence to prove their case. Insurance companies investigate accidents, but only concerning the insurance coverage they underwrite. The other party’s liability insurer determines if they owe damages due to their insured’s negligence. The decedent’s auto insurer investigates to make sure the decedent wasn’t responsible for injuring the other driver.

The liability insurance company won’t necessarily offer the family a settlement, even if they find that their insured caused the accident. The decedent’s own auto insurance should pay for the damage to the car, the medical payments coverage limit, and other covered expenses. They won’t offer a settlement unless the estate has a valid uninsured or underinsured motorist claim.

As both insurers have coverage-based agendas, a grieving family needs someone acting on their behalf.

Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Wrongful death laws vary by state. For example, under the Virginia Wrongful Death Codes, §64.2-454, if the decedent has no named executor or administrator within 60 days of his death, the court appoints a personal representative. The representative has the authority to file a negligence lawsuit on behalf of the decedent’s estate and his beneficiaries.

A wrongful death lawsuit names the estate as the plaintiff, and it names the responsible party as the defendant. The defendant’s insurer provides an attorney to protect and defend their insured driver’s interests. The lawsuit proceeds as the decedent’s lawsuit would have proceeded had he survived.

Wrongful Death Suits Don’t Always Go to Trial

After the estate’s legal representative files the lawsuit, the case moves forward through discovery. The attorneys obtain sworn testimony from the responsible driver, any witnesses, medical professionals, engineering experts, and others. The estate’s attorney also presents economic experts to help document the decedent’s future losses.

Just as with other negligence lawsuits, the parties may negotiate and settle the case without going to trial. Virginia courts encourage Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) forums such as arbitration, mediation, and settlement conferences. If the parties don’t reach an agreement, eventually, the case goes to trial. In a jury trial, the jury decides the liability and the damages. In a bench trial, a judge makes all of the decisions.

The Decedent’s Beneficiaries Share the Wrongful Death Judgment

Virginia Codes, § 8.01-54, explains wrongful death judgment distribution. The plaintiff or the defendant usually requests that the jury divide a judgment among the beneficiaries. If the jury can’t decide, the court determines the distribution. Section 8.01-53 explains who is entitled to a portion of any damages recovered.

The primary beneficiaries include.

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Children of the decedent’s deceased children
  • Parents who received regular support from the decedent during the previous 12 months

These provisions also list a hierarchy of relatives as alternate beneficiaries. It further defines relatives as someone related by marriage, blood, or adoption.

Types of Recoverable Damages

A judgment includes the economic and non-economic damages the decedent incurred before death. It also includes an award based on the family’s losses.

Wrongful death damages often include:

  • Costs for medical treatment and hospitalization
  • Funeral expenses
  • The decedent’s pain and suffering
  • The family’s sorrow, mental anguish, and loss of companionship, comfort, advice, etc.
  • Compensation for lost income, care, assistance, and other services the decedent would have provided
  • Punitive damages if the other driver caused the accident due to willful, wanton, or other reckless conduct

Recovery Options if the Other Driver is Uninsured

Sometimes, an uninsured driver makes the recovery process even more complicated. If the deceased loved one had uninsured motorist coverage, his insurance company may pay wrongful death damages up to the UM limit.

Uninsured Motorist (UM) coverage applies under certain circumstances.

  • The negligent driver had no liability insurance, bond, or other coverage in effect when the accident occurred.
  • A driver caused the accident, then left the scene unidentified.
  • The insurance or bonding company denied coverage or became insolvent.
  • Underinsured Motorist (UIM) coverage applies when the other driver’s policy limit is lower than the injured person’s uninsured motorist limit.

When UM or UIM insurance applies, the decedent’s insurer pays the damages the negligent driver should have paid. To protect the family’s legal right to recover damages, the personal representative must cooperate with the insurance company throughout the process.

Do You Need a Wrongful Death Attorney?

When a loved one dies in a car accident, the trauma is often devastating. You need legal professionals looking out for you and protecting your interests. Wrongful death attorneys can’t change your circumstances, but they know how to navigate the complex legal system on your behalf.

A wrongful death consultation is complimentary. You meet with a legal representative and discuss your loved one’s case. You learn more about your legal options and you make a decision when you’re ready.

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