Car accidents happen in an instant, in part because of the high speeds usually involved. In a flash of glass and steel, you could be physically, emotionally, and financially drained and devastated. You could face difficult choices about your future. If you lost a loved one to a wrongful death because of a car accident, those feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and anguish are often even harder to bear.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, car accidents are responsible for more than 35,000 deaths per year. While the number of deaths have decreased due to higher safety standards for vehicles, someone is still killed every 12 minutes. Here is what you need to know:
Driver Fatigue: New research indicates that drivers operating on less than 4.5 hours of sleep are just as impaired in their judgment, concentration and reaction times as drunk drivers—which means they are just as likely to cause an accident and therefore a wrongful death.
Drunk Drivers: Drunk drivers are perhaps the most famous cause of lethal car crashes, and for good reason. According to the CDC in 2014, alcohol was responsible for 9,967 vehicular wrongful deaths–nearly one-third of car accident related fatalities in the United States. Alcohol impairs judgment, perceptions, reaction times, and general coordination.
Distracted Drivers: A problem receiving more and more attention lately is the distracted driver. Whether because of texting, eating, or even looking at the radio to change the station, a distracted driver can easily cause a car accident while their attention is elsewhere.
Weather Conditions: Rain, snow, sleet, and ice can all make ordinary braking and turns risky, let alone dangerous behavior such as speeding.
Street and Highway Defects: Even if all drivers obey the rules, road hazards such as pot holes and uneven roads can prove perilous if not promptly removed.
Car Manufacturing Defects: A rare but still possible scenario is the car itself malfunctioning and causing a wrongful death. A deadly mechanical defect could range from an eroded hood latch snapping open on the road to the air bags failing to deploy during an accident.
The cause of the accident and wrongful death can alter who is considered at-fault and liable for the subsequent damages. In most cases the driver would be personally liable for their behavior. However, in cases of road or car defects the local government or the manufacturer, respectively, could also be liable.
To determine fault for a wrongful death by car accident, courts require proof of negligence. Negligence is the failure to act with proper care which results in harm to another person. For example, if a car manufacturer sells a vehicle knowing there is a potentially lethal defect, and did nothing to rectify that defect, that would be considered negligent behavior.
Legal negligence requires proof that the defendant had a duty of care to the victim. In other words, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant had an obligation to protect them. Drivers, however, are under a legal expectation that they operate their vehicles with a certain level of due care to all other cars on the road. Therefore, if it can be proven that a driver acted recklessly—whether by violating state laws or by drinking and driving–then their actions will usually be considered negligent.
Fault can be proved in numerous ways:
Police Records: If you lost a loved one by car accident, the police will most likely need to investigate and write an official report on the crash. They will make their own determinations about fault and the timeline of events. You can request a copy of this report to serve as part of the evidence in your wrongful death suit.
Hospital Records: Hospital records are another crucial source of evidence in determining fault in a wrongful death case. Medical records will describe the nature and extent of a patient’s injuries, how they were acquired, and what treatments medical professionals attempted. In other words, it can help determine if a car accident was responsible for their death.
State Laws: If the defendant violated state law—perhaps by turning right on red when they weren’t permitted to, exceeding the speed limit, or tailgating—then they would be usually be considered at fault for the car accident.
Witness Testimony: If anyone saw the crash occur, they could be invaluable in establishing what happened when and who is liable for any wrongful deaths that occurred.
Traffic Cameras: If the accident took place at an intersection with a traffic camera, the footage could serve as even more reliable evidence of what happened and how the defendant neglected the rules of the road and caused a wrongful death.
Collecting and compiling all this evidence through the proper channels can be difficult for the layperson, and forming them into a compelling argument for proving fault can be daunting without experience and legal training.
Holding someone accountable for the wrongful death of your loved one may seem like a small concern while you are in mourning, but it can actually help your healing process. An unexpected loss can be expensive, which adds another weight to a mind heavy with bereavement. Financial compensation can help relieve those monetary burdens, providing respite from anxiety and allowing more time to truly recover from your loss.
Some of the unexpected costs that can come with an unexpected wrongful death due to a car accident include:
Funeral Costs: Funerals can be far more costly than might be expected. The average funeral can cost around $6,560, which can represent an insurmountable charge for most people. The most basic of funeral services can still cost around $2,000, which doesn’t account for possibly mandatory removal fees, possibly mandatory embalming fees, or the casket (which itself could cost between $2,000 and $10,000).
Medical Bills: Often a wrongful death is preceded by hospitalization and medical care, which is expensive even with health insurance. The average cost of hospitalization is around $10,000, not including any major procedures and treatments medical professionals attempt in an effort to save your loved one.
Pain and Suffering: Losing a loved one in a wrongful death hurts. The mental anguish of losing them—losing their companionship, love, and guidance—can be nearly impossible to bear. Grief can cause depression, disengagement with life, struggles with employment and difficulty connecting to others. While there isn’t a definite value to this pain, it is very real burden.
In addition, a particularly negligent defendant might be liable for punitive damages as well. Punitive damages aim to punish the defendant for their actions and to dissuade others from making similarly destructive choices. Compensation can provide you and your family with not only financial aid for your expenses but a sense of justice, knowing that the person responsible for the loss of your loved one has been punished for their actions.
Even if the state is pursuing a criminal case against those you believe to be liable for the wrongful death of your loved one via car accident, you can still pursue a civil suit against them for the compensation you deserve.
The statute of limitations for wrongful death civil suit in Massachusetts is 3 years. While that may seem like a long time, having only three years to navigate the complex legal procedures and collection of evidence can prove daunting for people still in mourning. Hiring the experienced attorneys of Mazow | McCullough, PC can help; we have experience in collecting evidence, dealing with insurance companies, and pursuing cases through litigation and mediation. If you have lost a loved one in a wrongful death due to a fatal car accident, contact us today for a free consultation.