Although most car accidents do not result in fatalities, some automobile accidents may result in the death of the driver or the passengers who are involved. All car accidents have the potential to be fatal, from accidents that seem minor to passenger cars being crushed underside a truck.
The family members of a victim who passed away in a fatal car accident may have the right to sue on behalf of the decedent for damages as a plaintiff. Pursuant to personal injury laws, the family may have different legal theories which can be used to file a claim.
The theory which the family sues under will depend upon the facts and the individual who caused the accident. A fatal accident may also occur when there are certain factors present, which may include:
- Bad weather;
- Difficult driving conditions;
- Poor lighting; and
- Instances of driving under the influence (DUI).
When Can I Sue for Negligence After a Fatal Car Accident?
One legal theory which is frequently used in fatal automobile accident lawsuits is the legal theory of negligence. Negligence is the failure to use the care which an ordinary individual would use in the same circumstances or similar circumstances.
A family member may, in some cases, sue under the theory of negligence is a driver causes injury or death to:
- Another driver;
- A passenger; or
- A pedestrian.
In order to prove that a defendant was liable for the automobile accident, the plaintiff is required to show the following:
- The defendant owed a duty to not harm to the victim;
- The defendant breached the duty not to harm when they caused the accident;
- The defendant caused the accident. The defendant must be the actual and proximate cause of the accident; and
- The actions of the defendant led to the death of the victim.
An example of this situation is when a driver of a vehicle breaches their duty to follow the rules of the road and not to drive while intoxicated. Although it may not be a duty which is explicitly applied to drivers, there is an implication that when an individual drives on the roadway, they will do their best to follow the rules of the road and not to cause injury to themselves or other drivers.
If, however, an individual is found to be drunk driving and their voluntary impairment is the cause of a fatal automobile accident, they may be held liable.
What if the Vehicle Itself Caused the Accident?
In certain fatal accidents, a driver may not be primarily liable for causing the accident. Instead, the accident may have been caused by the vehicle itself due to a defect which was present at the time of the accident.
Under a products liability theory, a manufacturer may be sued by the family if there was a:
- Design defect: This occurs when there is an error, failure, shortcoming, or defect in the way that the product is designed, for example, if the car’s brakes were designed poorly, leading to an accident;
- Manufacturing defect: These occur when there is some sort of defect during the production or assembly stage of the vehicle or vehicle product, for example, if the engine is assembled incorrectly, resulting in an explosion; and
- Warning defect: These are when there is an error with regards to the product’s warning labels, informational labels, or other similar warning mechanisms, for example, if insufficient safety instructions are provided with the car.
In some car accident lawsuits, there may be more than one type of product liability issue. For example, a defective vehicle may have a design defect with the engine as well as have a warning defect regarding other parts of the vehicle.
For more information on these issues, please see the following LegalMatch articles:
- What is a Motor Vehicle Defect?;
- What is a Vehicle Structural Defect?; and
- What are Car Recalls and When are They Necessary?.
What is a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawsuit is a lawsuit which is filed by a family member on behalf of their family member who passed away. The family will file a lawsuit against the individual who allegedly caused their death in order to compensate them for the death of the individual.
Only one of the victim’s immediate family members is permitted to sue on behalf of a victim. If a fatal vehicle accident occurs, the survivors of the crash victims would be filing the lawsuit on their behalf.
In some cases, a fatal automobile accident may involve the death of several different parties and passengers. Because of this, a wrongful death lawsuit may involve complex legal determinations.
Calculating damages in a fatal car accident depends upon many different elements, including:
- The liability of the other parties involved;
- State laws which may restrict damages; and
- Other factors.
In some cases, the damages which may be awarded are subject to limitations, especially in cases involving punitive damages. In certain cases, a surviving spouse may also be able to file a claim for loss of consortium.
What Are the Requirements for a Wrongful Death Suit?
In order to succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit which arises from an automobile accident, it must be shown that:
- The accident must have been caused by an individual other than the deceased victim;
- The accident must have been the result of negligent, reckless or intentionally bad driving on the part of the at-fault driver and not the victim, including drunk driving;
- The suit must be brought before the statute of limitations has run; and
- The at-fault party was adequately insured.
Are there any Defenses Available in a Fatal Car Accident Lawsuit?
There may be some defenses available to a defendant in a fatal car accident lawsuit. For example, if a driver was operating under emergency conditions or circumstances, they may be able to claim that as a defense in their case.
This may occur when an individual’s driving was affected due to a medical emergency which occurred while they were driving their car, such as a stroke or heart attack. It is important to note, however, that this defense may not apply if an individual drove themselves to the hospital knowing that they were already suffering from a serious medical emergency which may have hindered their ability to drive safely.
Another available defense may include duress. Duress may prevent the defendant from being held liable because they were under a threat of harm at the time the accident occurred. For example, if a driver is forced to drive faster than the speed limit because someone else in the vehicle is threatening them with physical harm to speed.
Should I Consult a Lawyer about the Fatal Car Accident?
If your loved one passed away in a fatal car accident or you are being sued for a wrongful death lawsuit, it may be helpful to consult with a car accident lawyer near you. Your lawyer can guide you through what is likely to be a difficult and emotionally challenging time.
Your lawyer will represent you during any court proceedings as well as help negotiate a settlement. These types of cases are often complex and evidence is best presented by a professional.