What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?

HutzlerLaw October 4, 2022

Car accidents are commonplace and affect many people, with accidents often resulting in severe injuries and fatalities. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), tens of thousands of people die in motor vehicle accidents yearly, with the numbers increasing. Whenever someone dies in an accident, a specific process ensues, which may end with a negligent or malicious party compensating the victim’s family.

Suppose someone dies in a car accident, and another party is liable for the accident. In that case, with the help of an experienced car accident lawyer, the victim’s loved ones may be able to recover compensation for various damages in a wrongful death case.

What Happens Right After Someone Has Died in a Car Accident?

Immediately after a person has died in a car accident, specific protocols are in place to handle the situation. The following are some of the steps involved when a car accident results in a fatality.

Emergency Personnel Arrive

what happens when someone dies in a car accidentIf an accident results in serious injuries or deaths, paramedics and EMTs will likely arrive at the scene, along with other emergency services. Paramedics and EMTs have the proper training and resources to attempt to revive victims and transport them.

Emergency medical personnel will immediately determine who needs medical assistance and whether anyone has died due to the accident. In the process, they will perform triage, which involves prioritizing tasks based on each victim’s condition. If someone has sustained serious injuries requiring immediate attention, EMTs and paramedics will address these victims first. They may also conclude whether anyone at the scene is deceased.

If a deceased victim is at an accident scene, emergency personnel will cover the body in a white sheet before proceeding to address others. Covering the body helps preserve the victim’s dignity and protects the body from exposure that could affect critical evidence. Additionally, keeping the body covered prevents the media and bystanders from alerting the public to the victim’s death, giving medical professionals the chance to positively identify the person and notify the victim’s loved ones of their death.

The Arrival of the Coroner

In addition to emergency medical personnel, a coroner will arrive at the scene if there are any confirmed deaths. Upon arrival, the coroner will assess the accident’s body and the scene. Doing so will help determine what occurred during the accident and how the victim died. To complete this assessment, coroners will collect various pieces of evidence, including photos of the scene and witness testimony.

Once the coroner has completed their assessment, the next step will involve determining the cause of death. This can help determine whether the accident contributed to the person’s death and the nature of the accident, which can help gauge liability. For example, some accident victims may die due to pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease.

After the coroner has identified the victim, it will be up to them to locate family members and notify them of the victim’s death. In some cases, such as those involving severe disfigurement or a lack of available identification, the coroner may have difficulty identifying the victim. To positively identify the victim, the coroner would need to locate potential family members to have them identify the victim in person.

Police Report Filing

While the coroner assesses the scene and victims, the police will perform their duties. They will start by filing a police report detailing the accident and its events. The report will include witness statements and relevant details that help paint a complete picture of the accident.

Based on this report, the police can determine who was liable for the accident.

Transportation to the Morgue

A local morgue will receive the victim’s body once the coroner has completed their assessment, identified the victim, and notified family members. In some instances, victims may require an autopsy to determine their cause of death if the coroner rules that the accident was not the root cause.

Funeral Preparations

The last step will entail the victim’s family planning a funeral and burial. The body may travel from the morgue to a funeral home or mortuary to facilitate funeral services and burial.

Who Is Liable for a Fatal Car Accident?

The specific elements of the accident will determine who must pay for damages pertaining to a victim’s death. In many instances, insurers will pay for damages in a wrongful death settlement.

If another driver’s negligent behavior caused a fatal accident, the driver’s liability insurance would likely help cover the related damages. Other factors may influence liability and make different parties responsible for the accident. For example, the liable driver may have been making a delivery for their company at the time of the accident, which could make the employer responsible for the accident and the victim’s death, depending on the circumstances.

Ultimately, many factors can affect liability in a fatal car accident, but drivers are often responsible.

Will an At-Fault Driver Face Criminal Charges?

Often, car accidents occur due to the negligence of one or more drivers involved. If an accident results in a person’s death, negligent drivers may face criminal charges, including vehicular manslaughter.

Not every case with an at-fault driver will result in criminal charges. Certain factors could make drivers immune to these charges if they are not criminally responsible for the death.

There are a few key factors to consider when determining whether a driver will face criminal charges after an accident. These include:

Acts of Negligence or Aggression

If a driver is reckless and fails to adhere to the rules of the road, they may be criminally culpable for a fatal accident. Drivers who violate traffic laws or otherwise ignore the safety of themselves and others on the road could face criminal charges. For example, a driver may cause a fatal accident while knowingly speeding, which would make the driver criminally liable.

Impaired Driving

Drivers must be sober at all times while operating any type of vehicle. If a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and causes a fatal accident, they could face criminal prosecution.

Other Factors

Some accidents may result from something outside of any driver’s control, preventing the driver from facing criminal charges even if their vehicle ultimately caused the accident. For instance, poorly maintained roads could contain potholes that a driver cannot see, causing a tire to blow out and the driver to lose control of the vehicle.

Defective parts could also cause vehicles to malfunction and the drivers to lose control and cause an accident. In these instances, other parties might be liable, such as the manufacturers of defective parts or municipalities that failed to maintain roads.

When the Families of Deceased Car Accident Victims Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

In some instances, the families of car accident victims who died in an accident may be able to file a wrongful death suit against the liable parties responsible. Families might have this chance as long as the victim could have filed a personal injury suit if they had survived the accident.

You can determine if you can file a wrongful death lawsuit based on the following factors:

A Party Is Legally Liable for the Accident and Death

The first item to consider is the liable party responsible for the accident and wrongful death. This party often includes a negligent driver who failed to practice safe driving habits. However, liability could fall on other parties based on the specific cause of the accident.

Apart from drivers, the estate can hold some of the following parties liable to pay compensation to victims’ families in a wrongful death case:

  • Employers. If drivers get involved in an accident while acting within the scope of their employment, their employers may be responsible for wrongful death and other damages. Even if the driver’s negligence caused the accident, the employer might bear some responsibility. Employers may also be directly responsible for an accident if they acted negligently, such as when they fail to maintain company vehicles and resulting mechanical failure causes an accident.
  • Manufacturers of Parts and Vehicles. Sometimes accidents result from mechanical failure due to faulty parts or vehicles, whether a design or manufacturing flaw.
  • Mechanics. In addition to manufacturers, mechanics may be liable for an accident resulting from mechanical failure if they failed to provide adequate services. They may also perform services that render a previously safe vehicle unsafe to operate.
  • Bar or Restaurant Owners or Employees. The staff at restaurants and bars could also be liable for an accident if they served alcohol to patrons who were too intoxicated to serve. Bartenders and restaurant employees face certain legal repercussions for over-serving across the country. If a patron receives too much alcohol from a bar or restaurant and proceeds to drive while impaired, causing a fatal accident, the business that served them would be partially liable.

What Kinds of Compensation Can Loved Ones Recover in a Wrongful Death Suit?

It is often challenging to calculate the damages in a wrongful death lawsuit because of the different types of economic and non-economic damages involved. Some of the potential types of damages in these cases include:

Medical Expenses Before the Person’s Death

Not all car accidents result in a death at the scene of the accident. Some victims may succumb to their injuries up to weeks after the accident. During their hospitalization, victims may incur steep medical costs for treatment leading to their death.

Injuries that cause death are often extremely severe and require large amounts of medications, heavy-duty medical equipment, and ample staff to provide treatment, causing costs to add up quickly. In a wrongful death suit, victims’ families may be able to recover compensation for all relevant medical bills.

Expenses Incurred After the Victim’s Death

Once the victim has died, their family will often need to cover the costs of funeral services and burial, among other expenses. These damages also typically count toward a wrongful death case and are likely to be the primary damages in a case involving a victim who died at the accident scene.

Lost Income Before Death

Another potential type of compensation that victims’ loved ones may be able to recover is lost income. This could include the loss of income the victim observed between the time of the accident and their death, along with lost future earnings resulting from the person’s death.

Loss of the Loved One’s Services

Families of wrongful death victims may also lose certain services that their loved ones provided before death, which could lead to additional financial and personal strain. These services could include child care, maintenance of the family’s home and vehicles, care for elderly family members, housecleaning, and more.

The Victim’s Pain and Suffering

If the victim did not die at the accident scene, they might have experienced pain and suffering before succumbing to injuries. This could include physical pain and psychological distress the victim endured before death.

The Family’s Non-Economic Damages

The family of a wrongful death victim may also suffer from the loss of their loved one. The victim could have been a source of companionship and support, with partners experiencing the loss of a meaningful relationship and children losing their parents in many cases.

Determine Whether You Have a Wrongful Death Case

If a loved one has died in a car accident and you believe another party was liable, you may be able to file a wrongful death suit to recover compensation for all related damages. The first step toward beginning a case is contacting an attorney to discuss the accident and the damages involved. The attorney can then determine if you are likely to reach a successful outcome and may agree to represent you during the settlement process.

To find out whether you have a case that an attorney can help with, reach out to an experienced and knowledgeable personal injury attorney to discuss a potential case.