What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident
The last thing you want to hear is that a loved one was fatally injured in a car accident. When it happens, in addition to dealing with the loss of a loved one, you will have financial responsibilities to worry about, especially if your loved one was the main breadwinner. Massachusetts allows you to file a claim against the at-fault driver for wrongful death. While money won’t bring back your loved one, it does ease the financial burden and some of the stress you may go through after the death of a loved one.
Motor-vehicle accidents do kill people—and unfortunately, they do so with regularity nationwide. In just one year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Massachusetts alone had 360 traffic fatalities.
Massachusetts statutes outline who can file for a wrongful death lawsuit and how long you have to file it. To make a wrongful death claim against a defendant, the defendant’s negligent actions must have caused the death of a person. Additionally, the court might consider negligence to be “willful, wanton or reckless,” in which case, you could receive additional damages from the defendant. Even if the state declines to file criminal charges against the at-fault driver, you can still file a civil lawsuit.
Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations
When you want to file a wrongful death action, the executor or administrator of the estate must file the action on behalf of the estate. In most cases, you have three years to file a wrongful death lawsuit. However, in some circumstances, the executor or administrator might not learn that the death was wrongful until days, weeks, or months after the death. In these cases, the statutes allow the executor to file the lawsuit at the time he or she knew or should have known of the death to have the facts for a proper cause of action.
Recoverable Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Massachusetts allows you to recover economic, non-economic, and punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Special damages, or economic damages, are those with a set monetary amount and include:
- Past and future lost wages, including wages your loved one lost out on after the accident, but before his or her death.
- Medical expenses. In some cases, a person may not die at the scene of the accident. He or she could live for days, weeks, or even months before succumbing to his or her injuries.
- Replacement or repair of personal property.
- Funeral and burial expenses.
General damages, or non-economic damages, are those that do not have a price tag and include:
- Loss of companionship if a parent, spouse, or child loses his or her life.
- Loss of consortium when a spouse can no longer have a physical relationship with you before he or she passes, and, of course, after your spouse dies.
- Loss of services that your loved one might provide including home maintenance chores, shopping, cleaning, cooking, childcare, and other family-oriented services.
- Loss of protection and care.
- Loss of comfort, counsel, and guidance.
- Loss of assistance.
If the court finds that you prove the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent—that is, willful, wanton, or reckless, it might award punitive damages. Unlike economic and non-economic damages, which are an attempt to make you whole again, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant. If the court awards punitive damages, it must be in the amount of at least $5,000. However, the statutes do have some exceptions, which we can outline for you if you believe you have a case for punitive damages.
In some cases, the police may charge an at-fault driver with a crime. Common criminal charges include driving under the influence, ignoring traffic laws and reckless driving. If an accident occurs because of an act the at-fault driver cannot control, such as weather, especially if the driver is driving slow enough for conditions, unmarked road defects, or even a vehicle malfunction that is unexpected, the police are less likely to charge the defendant with a crime.
Wrongful death lawsuits are often complicated because of the number of people that could share in liability. Sometimes, third parties might share in the liability for a wrongful death. For example, if a bartender served the defendant drinks knowing the defendant was drunk, he or she might share in the liability. If a vehicle manufacturer knows about a defect but did not send out a recall notice, the manufacturer might share in the liability.
Working With Insurance Companies
You might be tempted to try to settle with the insurance company on your own. However, keep in mind that insurance companies are in business to make a profit. Any claim they pay out reduces their bottom line. Furthermore, they have been known to twist your words and use them against you to deny your claim or to reduce the amount of a settlement.
If you have a wrongful death claim, you always seek the advice of a car accident lawyer. In some cases, you might have to file a lawsuit, especially if you want punitive damages. Since Massachusetts is a no-fault insurance state, you must file a claim against your own insurance policy first. If your insurance policy coverage is not enough, you may file a claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance. Also, if one or more third parties share in the liability for the wrongful death, you may sue them, too.
What you thought might have been a simple claim often gets complicated once the facts of the accident are understood. When you add additional people or companies who might share in the liability, the pursuit of the compensation you deserve can grow exponentially more complex. If you lost a loved one in a car accident, contact an experienced wrongful death attorney is one of the best ways to understand your options.
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