Losing someone you love is an unexplainable feeling. It’s normal to go through a wide range of emotions, including grief, anger, and sadness. When you lose someone in a motor vehicle accident, you may feel a completely different set of emotions: confusion, loss, a need for justice. Unfortunately, car accidents are far too common, and many of them result in one or more fatalities.
If someone you love was recently killed in a motor vehicle accident, it’s important to understand your rights. You should speak with a car accident attorney to discuss your options and plan your next steps.
Possible Criminal Charges After an Accident
After a fatal accident, it’s natural to search for answers. The most common question is: why? Why did the accident happen? Was it preventable? What events led up to it? These are very reasonable and important questions.
The sad reality is, many accidents are just that—accidents, but sometimes accidents are the result of extreme negligence or reckless behavior. If this is the case, the driver of the vehicle (or sometimes a passenger) may face criminal charges.
Circumstances that might warrant a criminal investigation include:
- Speeding: If you have ever driven the roads and highways in Florida, you know speeding is a widespread problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that over one-quarter of all motor vehicle fatalities involve speed as a factor. Speeding does not always result in criminal charges, but when high speeds are the direct cause of an accident, charges are more likely. Additionally, officers and courts will consider how fast vehicles were traveling leading up to and at the time of an accident.
- Drunk driving: Drunk driving is a crime and extremely dangerous for everyone on the road. Alcohol interferes with a person’s judgment, coordination, and response time. Sadly, driving drunk can lead to deadly consequences. When drunk drivers cause fatal accidents, they will likely face felony charges, including manslaughter.
- Reckless driving: Reckless driving happens frequently, but it is one of the most dangerous behaviors on the road. Florida defines reckless driving as any behavior that shows “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” This may include tailgating, aggressive driving, or even distracted driving. Your attorney may use witness testimony or accident reconstruction to illustrate the other driver’s actions leading up to and during the accident.
The results of a criminal investigation will not affect your right to make a civil claim against the driver. In the same regard, the outcome of a criminal case will not prove anything or decrease the value of your civil case.
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Understanding Your Rights to File a Wrongful Death Suit
Money won’t bring a loved one back or take away the feelings of pain that accompany such a loss, but that is not the purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit. After the death of a loved one, the surviving family members take on the burden of outstanding medical bills, funeral and burial costs, and an uncertain financial future. A wrongful death suit can transfer this financial burden from the victim’s family to the at-fault party.
The law limits who may seek damages through a wrongful death suit.
In general, eligible parties are limited to the victim’s direct family, which includes:
- The surviving spouse
- The victim’s minor children, or adult children if there is no surviving spouse
- The victim’s parents if the victim is a minor child
- A personal representative of the victim’s estate
Damages in a Wrongful Death Case
After the death of a loved one, the victim’s family may file a wrongful death suit or a survivor’s claim. Wrongful death compensation claims consider the emotional and financial loss to a victim’s family after death. On the other hand, a survivor’s claim looks at any claim the victim may have had, had he or she survived. Damages in a wrongful death claim may include the following:
It may feel uncomfortable to think about money after the death of a loved one, but the fact of the matter is, a sudden death can have a substantial economic impact on the surviving family members. This is particularly true if the victim was the primary or sole income earner. One of the primary considerations during a wrongful death case is lost wages. This includes any wages after the victim’s death. This amount should be relatively straight forward and a combination of the person’s age, average income, and presumptive age of retirement.
Loss of service
Just because someone does not have a job outside of the home does not mean that he or she does not contribute economic value to the household.
If the victim was not working at the time of the accident, the insurance company may consider the loss of services, including contributions of:
- Child care
Loss of support
There is no way to quantify the loss of support when a child loses a parent. As children grow up, they rely on their parents for support. From the time they are infants, to the time they graduate high school, children need guidance, affection, and financial support. A sudden death can take away this support and affect a child’s emotional and psychological well-being.
Loss of companionship
As humans, we rely on the companionship and love of those around us. The law recognizes the physical and emotional connection shared by a married couple. As such, the insurance company has to consider the loss of companionship by the surviving spouse. Once again, this is a highly subjective claim, that may depend on a variety of factors.
Funeral and burial costs
According to the Ascent, the average funeral costs about $7,640. Florida law allows surviving family members to recover all reasonable and actual funeral and burial costs after the death of a loved one. Family members can only claim these costs if a member of the family or the victim’s estate initially paid these costs.
The court awards punitive damages to deter others from making the same mistakes. Punitive damages are not standard. The court only considers punitive damages in the most extreme cases.
- Drunk driving
- Reckless driving
- Extreme speeds
Florida law caps punitive damages. In most cases, these damages cannot exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages, or $500,000. While punitive damages are technically a fine against the defendant rather than an award for the plaintiff, they will still be included in an injured individual’s final compensation.
If you chose to file a wrongful death suit, you cannot claim survivor benefits, and vice versa. Survivor’s benefits consider the rights of a victim only from the date of the accident to the time of his or her death. Because you can only claim either wrongful death or survivor benefits, it is extremely important to talk to an experienced legal professional to figure out which type of action makes the most sense in your situation. Damages in a survivor’s action may include:
Medical bills are expensive; even a few days in the hospital can cost well over $100,000. A survivor’s action takes into account all medical costs from the time of the accident to the victim’s death.
Some insurance companies may limit coverage for certain types of care, but in most cases, medical costs include:
- Surgical procedures
- Hospital stays
- Medical devices
- Home health care
- Specialty care
Survivor’s benefits only consider lost wages from the time of the accident to the time of death. This is generally an easy calculation that looks at victims’ last-known wages and the number of hours they would have worked had they not been injured.
Unlike a wrongful death suit, survivor’s benefits claims do not include future lost wages. As such, medical costs and lost wages are two of the most important considerations when you decide what type of case to file.
Pain and suffering
Car accidents can cause serious, painful injuries. Under Florida’s personal injury laws, an accident victim has the right to seek financial compensation for any physical, emotional, or psychological pain following an injury caused by someone else. According to Florida statute, this right does not go away once someone dies. In this case, the victim’s family or estate can assert a survivor’s claim for pain and suffering. This only covers the time period before the victim’s death.
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Who Is Financially Liable When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?
To seek damages in a wrongful death or survivor’s claim, you must prove liability. It may seem pretty straightforward, but when it comes to motor vehicle accidents, there may be several parties who hold financial liability. In some circumstances, you may have a case against multiple negligent parties.
Responsible parties may include:
- The other driver: Usually, one or both of the drivers holds some level of fault after an accident. Florida is a pure comparative negligence state. What this means is, even if your loved one was partially, or even mostly, at fault, you can still file a wrongful death suit.
- An employer: If one or both of the drivers was on the job at the time of the accident, that driver’s employer may hold some level of liability. If the accident was due to unsafe employer practices, the employer may hold 100 percent liability.
- A government agency: In very rare cases, a state or local government may hold some of the blame after an accident. Government liability may result from unsafe or damaged roadways, missing directional devices, or inadequate maintenance. To find success in a case against the government, you must prove that the state or city knew about the unsafe conditions and failed to take appropriate action.
- A bar or social host: Florida law limits liability for bars and social hosts when an intoxicated guest causes death or injury. Under Florida’s dram shop law, establishments and/or individual employees may face liability if they knowingly served a person whom they knew had a drinking problem or if they knowingly or should have known the person they were serving was under the age of 21.
How to File a Wrongful Death Suit
If you plan to take legal action after an accident, it’s important to talk to an attorney right away. While plaintiffs generally have four years for most personal injury matters, a victim’s family only has two years to file a wrongful death suit from the time of death. Once you schedule an initial appointment, you and your attorney will discuss your rights and what you should expect from the case.
This process typically begins with a demand to the at-fault party’s insurance company. At this point, the company may or may not respond with a counter-offer. At every step of the way, it is your choice whether you want to settle. If you cannot come to an agreement with the insurance company, your attorney may file a motion with the court. While some cases do end up making it to court, the majority of car accident matters settle outside of court.
Know Your Rights and Demand Justice
Death is painful, and no amount of money will make your pain go away. Losing a loved one in a car accident is especially painful, given the sudden nature and preventability of such a loss. The purpose of a wrongful death suit is to make sure that surviving family members aren’t left with an added financial burden as a result of their loss. Wrongful death cases often prove emotional and complicated, which is why it’s always a good idea to work with an attorney.
If you have questions or need help figuring out what’s next, don’t wait. Contact an experienced Florida car accident attorney for more information about your legal rights.