Wrongful Death and Car Accidents

A fatal car accident can sometimes give rise to a wrongful death lawsuit, but these kinds of claims are somewhat unique.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

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:

  • what a wrongful death claim (or "cause of action") is
  • how wrongful death liability works in the context of a car accident case
  • who can file a wrongful death claim, and
  • how courts determine the monetary value of a wrongful death car accident lawsuit.

What Is Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death is a type of legal claim that arises when someone dies due to the careless (negligent), reckless, or intentional act of another.

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:

  • the existence of a duty of care; for example, all drivers have a duty not to operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol
  • the defendant (the person being sued for wrongful death) breached this duty; continuing with our drinking and driving example, the plaintiff in that kind of wrongful death lawsuit would likely have to prove that the defendant was driving a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit; and
  • the breached duty caused the death of someone else; in our hypothetical DUI accident lawsuit, the plaintiff must show that if it weren't for the fact that the defendant was driving drunk, the fatal car accident wouldn't have happened.

Get the basics on proving wrongful death in a civil lawsuit.

Wrongful Death Claims and Car Accidents

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.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?

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.

Is There an Average Payout for Car Accident Deaths?

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:

  • Age of the decedent. If the decedent is a young child, it might make intuitive sense for a wrongful death claim to be "worth" more. But this isn't usually the reality in the objective eyes of the law, because the accident doesn't have as big of an effect as economic factors like lost earnings and lost household services.
  • What the decedent did for a living. The more money the deceased person earned, the more the wrongful death claim is usually worth.
  • The size of the decedent's surviving family. If the decedent only had a spouse that could sue for wrongful death, the value of the case would likely be far less than it might if the decedent also had four young children.
  • The decedent's share of fault. In certain states, the decedent's share of fault in the underlying car accident can have a big effect on how much money is recoverable by a wrongful death plaintiff.
  • Amount of economic damages incurred because of the accident. This can include things like medical bills and funeral expenses.
  • The details of applicable laws. State laws outline how wrongful death actions work, recoverable damages in a wrongful death case, and special limits or caps on the amount of money recoverable for wrongful death.
  • Insurance policy limits. It won't usually be the defendant that pays any wrongful death settlement or court-order judgment. Instead, it'll be the defendant's insurance company. But how much insurance coverage the defendant has will sometimes dictate how much money the plaintiff receives.

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.

When Will I Get a Wrongful Death Settlement?

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.

If You're Thinking About Filing a Wrongful Death Claim After a Car Accident

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.

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