Stephen Hasner | Wrongful death | July 2, 2021
According to the CDC, car accidents kill about 30,000 Americans every year. This number has declined over time, as car manufacturers have improved the safety features inside their automobiles. But far too many people die in avoidable car accidents.
When someone dies in a car accident, the deceased person’s estate and survivors may have a compensation claim. Here are the things you should understand about the legal process when someone dies in a car accident.
At the Accident Scene
Under Georgia law, a driver that is involved in an accident that results in injury, death, or property damage over $500 must report the accident. If the accident occurs in a city, drivers must contact the local police department. If the accident occurs outside of a city, drivers must contact the county sheriff’s department or the Georgia State Patrol.
Drivers must also render medical aid to anyone injured in the accident. In most cases, this means calling emergency services to dispatch an ambulance or EMTs. This duty exists even if the injured person appears to be dead.
Investigating the Accident
The officers who respond to the accident will investigate the cause of the accident.
To recover compensation for a loved one’s death, the cause of the accident must have arisen from the intentional or negligent actions of another, such as:
- Criminal acts
- Texting While Driving
- Road rage
- Intoxicated driving
The officers will collect evidence and produce an accident report. The evidence could include witness statements, physical evidence like skid marks, and traffic videos. This accident report could provide the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Making an Arrest
After a death, the police must also determine whether the at-fault driver committed a crime.
In Georgia, vehicular homicide can happen under four circumstances:
- DUI or reckless driving
- Ordinary traffic offense
- Habitual offender driving on a suspended license
Police will not make an arrest for every accident that results in death. However, you can file a wrongful death claim regardless of whether there is an arrest. The standard for wrongful death differs from the standard for vehicular homicide.
There are a few circumstances in which someone besides the at-fault driver shares liability for an accident.
If the death resulted from a defective vehicle component, the decedent’s survivors might have a wrongful death claim against the manufacturer.
Some examples of defective products include:
- And more
The manufacturer may even be strictly liable for the death.
Georgia has a dram shop law, which imposes liability on businesses that serve alcohol to minors or visibly intoxicated adults that subsequently cause an accident.
If a drunk driving accident results in a death, the decedent’s survivors can file a claim against the drunk driver. But they may also have a claim against a liquor store, bar, or restaurant that willfully, knowingly, and unlawfully provided alcohol to the drunk driver.
Filing the Insurance Claim or Lawsuit
Georgia provides two causes of action after an accidental death.
If someone had a personal injury claim at their death, the estate can proceed with the claim. Suppose that a driver causes a car accident by texting and driving. If someone suffers injuries in that accident, they could file an injury lawsuit against the negligent driver.
If someone dies in that accident, their claim should not die with them. If the lawsuit ended with the death, the negligent driver would escape liability. Instead, Georgia allows the decedent’s estate to take over the lawsuit on the decedent’s behalf.
The decedent’s estate can recover any damages that the decedent could have recovered as a result of their injuries. Thus, if the decedent was hospitalized before dying, the estate could recover the cost of medical bills and missed work. The estate could also claim pain and suffering from the injuries.
Wrongful Death Claims
In Georgia, a wrongful death claim belongs to the decedent’s survivors. This claim compensates the survivors for the loss of their relative.
Parties to a Wrongful Death Claim
Georgia’s wrongful death statute provides a specific order of preference for the parties to a wrongful death claim. The claim first belongs to the surviving spouse. If the decedent has no surviving spouse, the claim belongs to their children. If the decedent had no surviving spouse or children, the claim belongs to the estate.
Time for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim
In Georgia, accident victims have two years after an injury to bring a personal injury claim. Likewise, survivors of a deceased injury victim have two years after the death to bring a wrongful death claim.
For example, suppose that someone suffers a brain injury in a car accident and survives for two months in a coma before dying. The statute of limitations to bring the wrongful death claim is two years after the death, not two years after the accident.
Damages Recoverable in a Wrongful Death Claim
Damages in a wrongful death claim cover the “full value” of the deceased person’s life. The damages fall into two categories.
Tangible damages cover financial losses from the death. Some examples include the deceased person’s income over their remaining life and their contribution of labor to the household.
Intangible damages cover the emotional losses suffered by the survivors. Some examples include the loss of:
- Marital relations
These damages may be difficult to quantify, but a skilled lawyer can present evidence of the decedent’s family relations to support a claim for intangible damages.
What to Do After a Loved One Dies in a Car Accident
There are a few steps you can take to improve your case for wrongful death. These include documenting your financial losses and speaking with a counselor or therapist. These steps will help you to document the full value of your loved one’s life. You should also speak to an injury lawyer as soon as possible to avoid missing filing deadlines.