Wrongful Death and Car Accident Claims
In late November of 2019, a car crash in Osceola County caused two deaths and left another individual seriously injured. The evening crash occurred on US-192 and Old Melbourne Highway near Alligator Lake. A 75-year-old female driver attempted to turn left onto Old Melbourne Highway in front of a van traveling westbound. The van collided with the passenger side of the woman’s vehicle. Both the woman and her 74-year-old male passenger died at the scene. The driver of the van was transported to the hospital with critical injuries. The accident remained under investigation at the time the news report was published. Unfortunately, tragic collisions are not uncommon in Florida. In 2018, according to Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 2,958 fatal accidents. These accidents resulted in 3,174 deaths. Following a fatal accident, legal processes will determine liability and any compensation for family members. Family members may be compensated for expenses caused by the accident, as well as pain and suffering caused by the loss.
Police Investigation of a Car Accident
Florida law requires any accident resulting in death or injury to be reported to police within ten days. Typically, however, law enforcement officers are notified immediately and will begin to investigate a fatal accident at the scene. Officers will interview vehicle occupants, if they’re able to speak to him or her. In addition, they will interview witnesses to try to determine how the accident occurred and why. After conducting interviews, the responding officers will also report other details of the scene, including:
- The damages to each vehicle involved;
- Skid marks or signs of collision on barriers, medians, road signs, or utility poles;
- The injuries sustained by the occupants of the vehicles;
- A description of how the accident occurred;
- Any traffic offenses that may have led to the accident, including excessive speed or alcohol impairment; and
- Any issues caused by the accident that might pose harm to others. For example, a large amount of debris on the road, hazardous materials, or issues relating to utility poles.
The police report is intended to determine, if possible, who was at fault in the accident. The investigating officers will note any suspicions of the commission of a crime in their report. For example, any evidence of driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving, or excessive speed will be noted in the accident report. If the crime warrants an arrest, and the driver committing the crime is stable, an arrest will be made. Even if police don’t arrest anyone, the ability of injured parties or the family of the deceased to recover compensation depends on who is liable. To file a lawsuit, you must know who to file it against. Thus, determining responsibility for the collision is important. A police report can help make determinations of liability.
Liable Parties Are Identified
The investigation will conclude when the police are satisfied that they’ve determined the cause of the accident. An experienced wrongful death attorney may also investigate the matter. An attorney will gather evidence that will be critical to the success of a wrongful death claim. Additionally, they will identify any other parties who may also be liable for damages resulting from the accident. In addition to the driver who caused the accident, other sources of liability may include:
- The owner of the car, if it is a different individual than the driver. The owner of the vehicle may be liable if they should have known the driver was prone to making errors. For instance, if the owner is aware of a driver’s previous reckless behavior, they may be held responsible. If the owner loaned a vehicle to a known alcoholic with a suspended license, they may be liable.
- The manufacturer or distributor of defective vehicle parts, if a defective part was a contributing factor in the accident.
- The governmental agency responsible for maintaining roadways, if a road or traffic device defect contributed to the accident. For example, if the accident occurred due to a missing stop sign, the agency responsible for that roadway would bear liability. Agencies may incur liability for all damages resulting from the accident.
- Other drivers may be liable, if it is determined that their actions were a contributing cause of the accident. If one driver was following another vehicle too closely and an accident resulted, they may be liable. For example, a vehicle is rear-ended, causing the lead vehicle to surge forward and strike a pedestrian. In that case, the driver following too closely could be found liable for the pedestrian’s death.
- The owner of a company, if one of their employees caused the accident while working within the scope of employment. Commonly, companies are liable in accidents involving tractor-trailers. If the truck driver is liable for the accident, the company he or she works for may also be found liable. Employer-liability occurs when a driver is acting as a company representative. All businesses are responsible for conducting background checks on their drivers. Additionally, they must ensure that drivers are properly trained to drive company trucks safely and lawfully.
PIP Death Benefits May Be Assessed
Drivers who register their vehicles in Florida are required to purchase a personal injury protection (PIP) insurance policy. PIP policies provide coverage for accident-related medical expenses or lost wages, regardless of who was at fault. In Florida, most PIP policies provide a $5,000 death benefit. A death benefit may be available to family members if the death involved one of the following:
- A named insured;
- A relative residing in the same household as the insured;
- Someone who is driving a motor vehicle owned and registered by the insured;
- Passengers in the insured’s motor vehicle; or
- A pedestrian who was struck by the insured’s motor vehicle, who was not an occupant of a motor vehicle and was not named on another PIP policy.
Those who aren’t eligible to receive PIP death benefits include:
- Passengers or drivers of a taxi;
- Someone who is hit by a public bus or is the employed driver of one;
- Motorcyclists and their passengers;
- Visitors to Florida who are hit by a vehicle as a pedestrian;
- Those who are riding a moped or a scooter when the accident occurred;
- Limousine drivers; and
- Those who experience an accident caused by a pothole or a maintenance issue in a government or privately owned parking lot.
In some situations, the $5,000 death benefit may be paid in addition to the policy limits for medical expenses. For instance, the benefit may be paid when the insured receives medical treatment for accident-related injuries before, ultimately, succumbing to those injuries. The death benefit is paid to the executor or administrator of the deceased’s estate. The executor or administrator may be the deceased’s relative by blood or marriage or a personal representative named in the decedent’s will. If there is no personal representative available, the court will appoint an executor or administrator of the estate. The PIP death benefit is a primary benefit. Primary benefits must be disbursed for the payment of funeral and burial expenses before any other insurance policies are assessed.
A Wrongful Death Claim May Be Filed
When another’s negligence, wrongful act, default, or breach of contract causes a death, the family of the deceased may receive compensation. Family members may be entitled to compensation for death-related expenses. In addition, they may be able to recover for non-economic damage. Non-economic damages include decreased quality of life resulting from the death of a loved one. Economic and non-economic expenses are obtained by pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit. The claim must be filed by the deceased’s personal representative. As mentioned, the personal representative may be named in the decedent’s will. In the absence of a will, a personal representative will be appointed by the court. The family members who may benefit from a wrongful death claim include:
- The deceased’s spouse, children, or parents.
- Any blood relatives or adopted siblings who were at least partially dependent on the deceased for support and services.
- A child born of unmarried parents who is recovering compensation related to the death of his or her biological mother. A child of unmarried parents whose biological father has formally recognized paternity and provided support may also benefit from the claim.
Some of the damages that may be recovered on behalf of the family through a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- The loss of support and services that were provided by the deceased.
- The loss of companionship, guidance, and protection that the deceased provided to his or her family.
- Mental and emotional pain suffered by parents over the loss of a child.
- Medical, funeral, and burial expenses that were paid by a family member on behalf of the deceased.
- Loss of wages, benefits, and other earnings, which may be recovered on behalf of the estate. This includes the loss of future earnings had the deceased survived and continued to work.
- In certain cases where the defendant exhibited particularly reckless or intentional behavior resulting in death, punitive damages may be awarded. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant and deter similar behavior in the future.
Car Accident Wrongful Death Claim FAQs
The person who caused the accident resulting in my loved one’s death was arrested for vehicular homicide after the accident. Can I still benefit from a wrongful death claim?
Yes. Florida’s Wrongful Death Act states that a claim may be filed in cases where the death results from someone’s wrongful act. Filing a wrongful death claim is a completely separate action from the criminal investigation. Wrongful death claims differ from charges of vehicular homicide in several ways. Some differences are:
- Vehicular homicide is a criminal charge. Criminal proceedings involve crimes against the state or even the federal government. Wrongful death claims are civil claims allowing family members to seek compensation for damages related to the death.
- The criminal investigation likely includes an arrest, a criminal trial, and penalties that include prison time. Because wrongful death lawsuits are civil actions, they don’t involve arrests or the potential for a prison sentence.
- The burden of proof is lower in a wrongful death lawsuit than it is in a criminal proceeding. Prosecutors in criminal trials must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongful death claims require “a preponderance of evidence” that the defendant’s actions more likely than not caused the death.
How long do I have to file a wrongful death claim?
Generally, a wrongful death claim arising from a car accident must be filed within two years of the date of death. However, this time limit may be shorter or longer, depending on the facts of your case. For example, wrongful death claims filed against governmental agencies follow a different process. These claims are barred after a much shorter period of time. An experienced car accident attorney can advise you of the timeline associated with your claim.
My boyfriend died in an accident. Can I file a wrongful death claim?
A wrongful death claim can only be filed by your boyfriend’s named or appointed personal representative. The personal representative files the claim on behalf of family members, including legally married spouses. If you did not have a legally recognized or common law marriage, you are ineligible to benefit from a claim.
An accident caused by a distracted driver caused the death of my loved one. Is distracted driving a wrongful act?
Wrongful acts denote intention. People seldom intentionally drive distracted for the purpose of causing an accident that results in another person’s death. However, distracted driving is a negligent act and is, therefore, legally actionable through a wrongful death claim. Have you lost a loved one in a car accident that was caused by someone else? Let a car accident lawyer with experience in wrongful death cases help you understand your legal options. Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA 800 North Belcher Road Clearwater, FL 33765 (727) 451-6900 https://www.dolmanlaw.com/florida-car-accident-lawyer/