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When Happens When a Car Accident is Fatal?

Posted on 11/28/23

Have you lost a loved one in a car crash that was someone else’s fault? Wilk Law, a firm of devoted West Chester car accident lawyers, will help you bring those responsible to justice.

Thousands of people die in road crashes every year in the US. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2022 projections show 42,795 crash-related fatalities on US roads. And according to PennDOT, the state of Pennsylvania saw 1,179 deaths out of the 115,938 reported car crashes in 2022.

Some of those fatally wounded died on the spot, while others succumbed to their injuries after days, weeks, months, or even years of unsuccessful treatment. Either way, it can be a deeply emotional and financially straining time for families and friends who’ve lost a loved one in a car crash. And in most cases, the victim’s families don’t know what to do.

Wilk Law specializes in car accident cases, including wrongful death resulting from road accidents. Our team will ensure those responsible for your loved one’s death face justice and that you’re generously compensated for your loss.

What Happens When Someone Is Killed in a Car Accident?

Many road accidents occur due to avoidable driver negligence. It could be that the driver was speeding, intoxicated, distracted, or blatantly reckless when they collided with the victim. Such a driver could face criminal charges on counts of vehicular manslaughter. And the victim’s family gets compensated for the wrongful death of their loved one.

Although no amount of money can make up for such a loss, the compensation might come in handy to clear medical and funeral bills, cushion the pain and suffering, and get the family back on its feet after losing its breadwinner.

However, claiming compensation for wrongful death is an uphill battle. It’s up to the victim’s family to prove that someone’s negligence resulted in the fatality. Oftentimes, there are lots of strings tied to proving wrongful death and the associated negligence. Such cases can get complicated fast. And if not argued correctly, the negligent driver could easily walk away scot-free. That’s where the experience and skills of a West Chester car accident lawyer come into play.

If a Car Accident Is Fatal, Will the At-Fault Driver Be Charged Criminally?

Under Pennsylvania statutes Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 3732, any driver who recklessly or with gross negligence causes the death of another person is guilty of homicide-by-vehicle or vehicular manslaughter. These are 3rd-degree felonies punishable by license suspension, jail time, and hefty fines.

However, not all fatal car accidents fit the criteria for criminal charges, even when some level of fault is involved. If the accident happened due to something outside the driver’s control, the driver may be exempt from criminal charges. For example, if bad weather, unexpected mechanical failure, or poor road conditions caused the driver to crash and kill someone, the court may waive negligence altogether.

Generally, there are two scenarios where the at-fault driver may be charged with a criminal offense:

Moving Violation-Related Offence

Every road user is expected to act responsibly toward the safety of others and observe traffic rules — that’s known as the duty of care. If a driver breaches their duty of care, they are said to be negligent. Common examples of driver negligence include:

  • Speeding
  • Violating traffic rules, signs, or directives
  • Distracted driving (texting, eating, rubbernecking, etc. while driving)
  • Reckless driving, such as careless overtaking and lane-switching
  • Road rage — aggression toward other road users
  • Driving while fatigued or drowsy

If the driver’s negligence causes an accident that results in a fatality, they could be prosecuted for homicide-by-vehicle, which is punishable by fines amounting to $15,000 and up to seven years in jail.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

The state of Pennsylvania is especially harsh to those caught driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, more so if the intoxicated driver causes a fatality on the road.

Any driver with a 0.08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) faces a DUI conviction. You may also be convicted of DUI with as little as 0.05% BAC if there’s enough supporting evidence that you were driving impaired.

A typical DUI charge goes up to a 1st-degree misdemeanor, punishable by an 18-month license suspension, a five-year jail term, and up to $10,000 in fines. The penalties for a DUI vehicular homicide are much more severe. If found guilty, the driver could spend up to 10 years in jail and pay $25,000 for each life lost due to negligence.

What Happens When the At-Fault Party in the Crash Dies?

The at-fault driver is not immune to injuries during a car accident. In fact, it’s not uncommon for both the victim and the at-fault driver to succumb to their injuries. In some cases, the at-fault driver dies later on from causes completely unrelated to the accident in question. Either way, the unfortunate death of the defendant can complicate the case.

Since you can’t file a lawsuit against a deceased person, you sue their estate instead. But before you can do that, the defendant’s estate must go through probate. This is where it begins to get complicated.

The probate process can take a while; it might even exceed the two-year statute of limitation allowed to file for wrongful death. This can cause unwanted delays, although the court may extend the Pennsylvania personal injury statute of limitations if you had already filed the lawsuit before the defendant’s death. It’s important to work with an experienced lawyer to help you navigate this complex landscape, keep up with deadlines, and secure your access to compensation even in the defendant’s absence.

A representative or lawyer from the late defendant’s estate may request that you settle the matter out of court and even make a settlement offer. Not to be insensitive to the grieving family, but settling might not be your best option this far into the lawsuit. Understandably, the defendant’s party will want you to settle because the lawsuit might favor the plaintiff’s side.

Again, not to be unsympathetic, but with the defendant gone, no one can argue the case from their perspective. The court will not hear the negligent driver’s insight and testimony that would otherwise attempt to discount your claim. And the defending estate will have to resort to other (weaker) forms of evidence. You’ll likely have the winning upper hand. So, it’s best to see the lawsuit through to the end and let the court decide the appropriate settlement.

How Are Fatal Car Accident Claims in Pennsylvania Proved in Court?

The plaintiff bears the burden of proof in all personal injury cases, including wrongful death. As the victim’s family, you must prove that the defendant acted irresponsibly or broke the law, resulting in the fatal accident.

In most cases, you’ll find the driver at fault for negligence — speeding, violating traffic laws, drunk driving, etc. If you can prove that the driver was indeed negligent and either wholly or partially responsible for the loss of life, it’s pretty much an open-and-shut case. Here are some examples of the evidence that could potentially implicate the driver or strengthen your case:

  • Official police report
  • Eye witness testimonies
  • Photos or video footage of the accident
  • The driver’s designated work schedule, working hours, route, and cargo (for commercial vehicles)
  • The driver’s alcohol/drug test results
  • The driver’s suspended license
  • The driver’s traffic violation history

However, finding the negligent party in a wrongful death car accident case is not always so straightforward. And the driver may not be the one to blame.

For example, if a commercial vehicle suffered mechanical failure and caused the accident, the employer or those responsible for servicing, maintaining, or inspecting the vehicle could be held accountable for wrongful death. Also, local government authorities, such as PennDOT and city municipals, can be held accountable for fatal accidents caused by potholes or debris on the road, missing or unclear traffic signage, and broken traffic lights.

Essentially, proving wrongful death in a car crash comes down to finding who breached their duty of care leading to the accident. A car accident lawyer will help you do that. With a good attorney by your side, you’ll be able to thoroughly examine the case, find the root cause of the accident, and gather the necessary supporting evidence.

What Are My Options if a Loved One or Family Member Dies in a Crash?

Filing a wrongful death lawsuit is your best option for seeking compensation and justice after a family member dies in a car crash. But you can only do this if you have enough cause to believe that the death was “wrongful” — resulted from negligence or malice. Have a lawyer evaluate the case to gauge the strength of a wrongful death claim.

The immediate family members of the deceased (spouse, children, sibling, or parent) or next of kin stand to get compensated for the following damages:

  • The decedent’s medical and funeral expenses
  • Administration expenses for the victim’s estate
  • Loss of parental protector/guardian
  • Loss of breadwinner
  • Loss of companion
  • Loss of household services
  • Pain and suffering (grief and compromised quality of life)

Any damages recovered from the claim should be divided among the deceased’s beneficiaries in the same way as when a person dies without writing a will.

Who Can File a Claim in a Fatal Car Accident in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, the personal or legal representative of the deceased person’s estate files the wrongful death claim on behalf of the beneficiaries. This is the same person named by the court as the administrator of the deceased person’s estate or the decedent’s will executor.

If the estate’s personal representative does not file the claim within six months of the victim’s death, any one of the beneficiaries can bring the case forward. Remember, wrongful death has a two-year statute of limitation that starts on the date of death.

If the deceased is not survived by a child, spouse, parent, or sibling, the personal representative can only claim compensation for the associated medical, nursing, funeral, and administration expenses. All other damages must be awarded to the decedent’s surviving beneficiaries.

Normally, there’s a particular hierarchy regarding who gets what in terms of compensation. While certain beneficiaries might be eligible for compensation, they may not necessarily get any. Things can get even more complicated if the decedent left a will or other legal documents stipulating the share of their estate. A good lawyer will help your family navigate these murky waters and ensure everyone gets their fair share of compensation and inheritance.

How Wrongful Death Cases in Pennsylvania Work

A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit, much like any personal injury case. That means the plaintiff, the deceased person’s beneficiaries or estate representative, sues the person or entity responsible for the wrongful death.

We mentioned that a person charged with wrongful death — in this case, a fatal car accident — may also face criminal charges. That’s true, but each case is a different lawsuit. If the defendant in a wrongful death case is found guilty, the court orders them or their insurance to pay for the implicated damages. Meanwhile, if someone is found guilty of criminal charges, they are thrown in jail and/or fined. Plus, criminal charges are usually brought up by a state prosecutor via the District Attorney’s Office.

If the person responsible for the death of your loved one is also facing criminal charges for the same accident, it might be advisable to wait for the criminal proceedings to finalize before filing a wrongful death lawsuit. Why? Because if the defendant is found guilty, you’ll have more to work with to make a strong case. But ask your lawyer first about the best course of action, especially when considering urgency.

Experienced Car Accident Lawyer in West Chester, Pennsylvania

Wilk Law is an expert in Pennsylvania civil law specializing in car accidents, medical malpractice, premises liability, wrongful death, and more. Founded and led by Tyler J. Wilk, a passionate personal injury attorney with a reputation for aggressive legal representation, Wilk Law has proven an invaluable litigation asset in the courtroom.

Rest assured that Wilk Law will fight tirelessly for your state-given rights no matter the dispute or which side of the bar you stand on. Best of all, you don’t pay a penny until you win. Contact Wilk Law today for a free consultation and case evaluation.