Liability for Car Accident Wrongful Death: Insurance Claims and Lawsuits

After a fatal car accident, don’t rely on the insurance company. Here’s how to protect your wrongful death claim against the driver and other parties.

More than 37,000 people are killed on American roadways every year. That equivalent to one person killed every 14 minutes, night and day. ¹

Fatal road crashes might involve automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, or pedestrians. As in most vehicle accidents, there is usually insurance involved.

When you’ve lost a loved one in a fatal car accident, you have a right to expect compensation from the at-fault driver’s insurance company. But the insurance company won’t just hand over a check.

Here’s what you need to know about wrongful death claims and auto insurance compensation.

Car Accidents and Wrongful Death

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens. Drivers under the age of 25 have the largest proportion of fatal auto accidents, followed by drivers over 70 years of age. ²

Sadly, motor vehicle accidents take the lives of all ages, every day.

Common causes of fatal accidents include:

  • Distracted driving is a significant cause of driver errors, with fatal consequences. Drivers may be distracted by cell phone calls, texting, personal grooming, or other tasks
  • Driver fatigue is dangerous, particularly during long drives at night
  • Driving drunk, on drugs, or a combination of both
  • Speeding and other forms of aggressive driving are often the cause of fatal crashes
  • Unbelted drivers or passengers are much more likely to be fatally injured than vehicle occupants who are properly restrained
  • Motorcycle riders are most often killed by cars violating the motorcycle’s right of way
  • Pedestrians struck by vehicles account for a significant percentage of fatal car accidents
  • Bicyclists are fatally injured by collisions with motorists who are speeding or distracted
  • Vehicle defects may be the primary cause of death in some fatal accidents due to the failure of mechanical or safety features

Pursuing a Wrongful Death Claim

In the aftermath of a car accident death, one of the first questions is, “How did this happen?” Many times, that question will be first answered by the police investigation into the crash. Law enforcement agencies typically conduct in-depth investigations into fatal vehicle accidents.

When the authorities decide that negligence caused a fatal car crash, the legal concept of wrongful death comes to the forefront. A wrongful death claim is a demand made by the family member or estate representative on the party whose actions caused the person’s death.

The family of a fatally injured car accident victim has three options for pursuing compensation:

  1. File a claim with the deceased’s insurance company (if the at-fault driver is uninsured or underinsured)
  2. File a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company
  3. File a lawsuit against the at-fault driver

Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Coverage

When the deceased accident victim is a member of your household and the at-fault driver had little or no insurance, you can turn to your family’s auto insurance policy.

Covered household members are those who live with you, including your:

  • Spouse
  • Biological children
  • Adopted children
  • Step-children
  • Child’s spouse
  • Grandchildren
  • Parents

Children are legally members of your household even if you share custody with a former spouse. So long as the child has a bed in your home, they are members of the household.

Parents who shared custody of a fatally injured child may be able to pursue coverage from auto insurance policies in both households.

Uninsured motorist coverage is mandatory in most states for bodily injury. It includes coverage for wrongful death damages if the at-fault driver had no valid insurance at the time of the crash.

Underinsured motorist coverage is usually optional, although in some states the insurance company is obligated to offer underinsured coverage. Underinsured coverage kicks in when the at-fault driver’s insurance has been exhausted.

Underinsured motorist claims can be tricky because your insurance company will ask you to be satisfied with the at-fault driver’s liability limits. You know that no policy has coverage that can fully compensate you for the loss of a loved one. Your damages will always exceed the at-fault driver’s limits.

Don’t let the adjuster take advantage of your grief. Contact a personal injury attorneyto handle a wrongful death claim.

Damages in Wrongful Death Claims

Every state has its own wrongful death laws and deadlines. The laws provide a framework for family members to seek compensation for their monetary losses and emotional damages.

Typically, the deceased person’s family will seek damages including:

  • Medical bills for emergency services provided to the deceased
  • Funeral expenses
  • Pain and suffering of the deceased before death
  • Loss of anticipated future income and benefits
  • Spousal loss of consortium
  • Loss of companionship suffered by family members, including spouses, children, step-children, parents, and siblings
  • Loss of guidance and mentoring suffered by the deceased person’s adopted or biological children

Each state has different rules governing wrongful death claims. Find your state’s wrongful death laws here.

Proving a Car Accident Wrongful Death

You’ll need to prove you have a valid wrongful death claim whether you:

  • File a claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance company
  • File a lawsuit against the at-fault driver
  • File lawsuits against others who contributed to the wrongful death of your family member

Understanding Negligence and Liability

The basis of your claim or lawsuit is that your loved one died because someone did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do.

Understanding some terms used by insurance companies and lawmakers will help you with your case:

  • Duty of Care means a legal obligation to avoid causing harm to others. Drivers have a legal obligation to avoid distractions while driving.
  • Negligence happens when a property owner, business owner, or an individual fail in their duty of care. The bar owner who served alcohol to a teenage driver was negligent.
  • Liability means legal responsibility. The negligent party, like the bar owner who served a teenager, is responsible for the death of the two kids who later died when the intoxicated teenage driver hit a tree.

Who can be liable?

More than one “party” can be liable for the wrongful death of a person, such as:

  • The driver, like the individual driving the speeding car
  • Another individual, like the parent who served alcohol to minors at a prom party
  • A corporation, like the manufacturer of the defective airbag system
  • A business person, like the owner of a bar that continued serving an obviously intoxicated customer
  • A government agency, like a state highway department that failed to remove spilled oil from the road

Comparative and Contributory Negligence

When considering any car accident death, it’s vital to understand how insurance companies will try to use comparative and contributory negligence to deny or reduce your wrongful death claim.

Don’t be fooled by the insurance adjuster’s condolences. Their sympathy ends as soon as the topic turns to settlement amounts. In a nutshell, the insurance company will blame your loved one for their death and expect you to go along with it.

Today, only Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia follow the pure contributory negligence rule. In those five states, the insurance company can flatly deny an injury claim if the person was as little as one percent to blame for contributing to their injuries, even fatal injuries.

Pure contributory negligence is a harsh, many say outdated way to handle injury claims. Fortunately, most states use comparative negligence or modified comparative negligence rules.

Under pure comparative negligence rules, you can proceed with a wrongful death claim, even when you are certain the deceased person was primarily to blame for the circumstances of the accident.

In modified comparative fault states, the insurance company would have to prove the deceased person was equally to blame (50% rule) or more to blame (51% rule) than their insured before they can deny a wrongful death claim.

An experienced attorney will spare you from dealing with the adjuster and protect the value of your family’s claim.

Protect Your Wrongful Death Compensation

Protect your claim from the start by hiring a skilled personal injury attorney. Fatal car accident claims are complicated, time-sensitive, high-dollar claims. Only an attorney can effectively pursue a car accident wrongful death case.

It’s difficult for family members to know what to do after a senseless death. However, if you don’t settle your claim or file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations runs out, you’ll forfeit your right to seek compensation.

Don’t believe the insurance adjuster who says you don’t need an attorney. Either they will offer you a fast, low-ball settlement and say you’re lucky to get that much, or they will let the claim sit until it expires.

The insurance company won’t hesitate to use your grief against you. The adjuster knows if they tell you it’s their “final offer” you probably won’t have the heart or the legal savvy to fight for more money.

A good attorney knows all the insurance company’s tricks and won’t stop there.

Besides fighting low-ball offers and accusations of comparative fault, an attorney will recognize every avenue of wrongful death compensation your family may be entitled to, such as:

  • Multiple liability policies connected to the at-fault driver or vehicle owner
  • Multiple policies with uninsured or underinsured coverage
  • Dram-shop violations (for serving alcohol)
  • Product liability for defective car parts

An attorney will be able to uncover evidence of liability you would never be able to get to on your own, using legal tactics such as depositions, interrogatories, expert testimony, and more.

Additionally, you’ll need expert support like actuarial studies and special accountants to prove the value of your damages.

Winning your wrongful death claim, especially when multiple parties are involved, requires a smart attorney who can afford to advance funds for experts and other expenses.

There’s too much at stake to risk waiting on an insurance company. Let an attorney handle your wrongful death claim from the start. Most attorneys will represent you on a contingency fee basis, meaning the attorney won’t get paid until your family does.

Don’t delay. There’s no cost to find out what a skilled personal injury attorney can do for you.

Fatal Car Accident Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>