Driving and fatal car accidents are inextricably linked. In 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that more than 38,000 people died in traffic accidents, the highest number of such deaths in more than 10 years.
Many fatal car accidents are the result of human error, such as distracted driving, speeding, and driving under the influence, so it follows that a wrongful death claim forms the basis of many car accident lawsuits. This article will cover:
Wrongful death is a civil legal claim. So if someone is liable for wrongful death, they're not facing criminal penalties. Instead, a finding of liability leads to an order to pay damages in the form of money. In some situations, a person can face both criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit for wrongful death based on the same incident, but that's a rare occurrence in the context of a car accident.
To bring a successful wrongful death claim, a plaintiff must usually prove:
Get the basics on proving wrongful death in a civil lawsuit.
If a family member dies in a car accident that someone else caused, you may have a wrongful death claim against the at-fault driver. Depending on the rules of civil court where you live, you might file a personal injury lawsuit and include wrongful death as a claim, or "cause of action" in the language of the law. Or you might file a standard civil lawsuit, citing your state's wrongful death statute as the basis for the case. Either way, as the plaintiff, you'll need to be ready to present evidence proving the elements that make up a wrongful death claim (likely similar to the three elements we set out in the previous section).
Although every case is different, typically only one or two key elements are contested in a wrongful death claim. For instance, imagine an accident where a vehicle driver hits a bicyclist. The bicyclist dies, and a surviving family member sues the driver for wrongful death.
To successfully sue the driver of the vehicle, the key issue might be the third element, causation. It's clear that the driver has a duty to pay attention to the road and not get distracted by unnecessary actions, like sending a text message. But the driver denies that they were using their phone at the time of the accident.
However, with the help of phone records, text message time stamps, and traffic cameras, the plaintiff might be able to show that when the driver hit the cyclist, they were in the middle of typing out a text message.
Each state has different rules on who can file a wrongful death case. Generally speaking, only immediate family members can bring a wrongful death suit. This includes parents, if the decedent was a minor child, or spouses, if the decedent was a spouse. And in cases when the decedent is a single adult, a more distant family member, like a grandparent, can sometimes bring the wrongful death claim. Get more details on who can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
There is no readily available data when it comes to the average payout amount for wrongful death cases stemming from car accidents. Even if this information were available, it wouldn't be that helpful, since every case is unique. It might be more beneficial to focus on the key factors that typically carry the most weight when it comes to the value of a wrongful death claim, including:
Another reason wrongful death compensation figures are elusive is that most cases settle before trial, usually with the settlement amount remaining confidential. In some situations, a "slam dunk" case is more likely to settle because the defendant knows they'll probably lose. And they might get away with paying a slightly lower amount by settling early as opposed to taking their chances at trial.
But on the other side of things, a weak case might be more likely to settle because the plaintiff understands the longshot nature of the claim and is willing to accept a lower settlement amount to guarantee some sort of recovery.
Settlement of a wrongful death claim can occur at any point on the personal injury lawsuit timeline. It might take place when negotiating with the at-fault party's insurance company. Or it might settle only after someone files a wrongful death lawsuit. In some cases, it will settle the night before the trial. But regardless of when the settlement takes place, it will probably be after extensive negotiations with the plaintiff providing evidence and information to justify the settlement demand.
For example, a plaintiff suing for the wrongful death of a spouse might have to hire special experts. They would testify and write reports as to how much longer the defendant might have lived and how much money they might have made until they died. The plaintiff would also have to produce bills and invoices. These would show the cost of funeral arrangements or medical care before the decedent died. And if the plaintiff is asking for compensation due to loss of household services (like completing yard work and household chores), they might have to provide estimates as to their economic value.
For details on wrongful death lawsuits where you live, including rules on who can file these kinds of claims, and the types of damages that might be available, check out Nolo's state-specific wrongful death article collection.
If you're thinking about filing a wrongful death lawsuit, your best first step might be discussing your situation with a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can help you determine the strengths and weaknesses of your case, and help to ensure the best outcome. Learn more about finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case. You can also use the features on this page to connect with an injury lawyer near you.