Pursuing Timely Wrongful Death Actions
Hearing that a loved one has passed away in a motor vehicle accident is news that no one wants to hear. It is even more shocking to realize the death occurred because of the negligent or intentional actions of another driver.
In addition to dealing with the emotional devastation following a death, you will also need to consider how to handle the financial implications of the loss. Financial impacts include immediate concerns like medical and funeral expenses as well as future burdens, like lost income. If another party was responsible for your loved one’s death, they may be responsible for the damages you and other family members have suffered.
To pursue recovery, you must file a wrongful death claim against the responsible party. Florida law, for example, establishes the specific process and available damages for recovery. You cannot recover, however, if you do not file your action promptly. Read on to understand how to recover funds for a wrongful death claim after a motor vehicle accident and ensure you comply with Florida’s statute of limitations requirements.
Wrongful Death and Motor Vehicle Accidents
A wrongful death claim is any claim brought when the negligent or intentional acts of another causes an individual’s death. The suit seeks to compensate the family and loved ones of the victim for the losses they have suffered due to the individual’s death. One of the most common wrongful death causes is a motor vehicle accident.
More than 32,000 fatalities take place in the United States from motor vehicle accidents each year. While not all deaths are the result of another party’s negligence, many are. In a vehicle crash, violations of traffic laws and regulations are strong evidence of negligence. These violations could include things like running a red light, speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol, or distracted driving. The data shows that these types of traffic violations are common causes of car accidents throughout the United States. More than 10,000 crash deaths in the United States each year involve drunk driving, and more than 9,500 crash deaths involve speeding.
Negligent driving is equally responsible for traffic fatalities. In a recent year, there were more than 3,000 traffic-related fatalities in Florida alone, where almost 400 fatalities involved alcohol, almost 350 involved drugs, and exactly 300 involved both drugs and alcohol. Only 674 of the fatalities did not involve contributing action from a driver.
In addition to drivers, other parties can be responsible for a wrongful motor vehicle death:
- Employer. If a driver is acting in their role as an employee, the employer could be held responsible for the employee’s negligent or intentional acts that cause injury. The employer is more likely to be well funded and have a substantial insurance policy. The employer may claim the driver was an independent contractor; an attorney can help you analyze the merits of that claim. Common scenarios that involve employer liability are accidents with delivery drivers or accidents with commercial truck drivers.
- Local government. Poorly maintained roadways or traffic signals often contribute to accidents. It is the local government’s responsibility to maintain these structures. Pursuing a claim against a governmental entity can be quite complicated because these entities are often protected from liability. Consider contacting an attorney for additional guidance.
- Vehicle manufacturer. Vehicle malfunctions also cause accidents. If the malfunction resulted from a failure by the manufacturer to appropriately test or manufacture the vehicle, they could be held responsible for injuries or death caused by these failures. Determining manufacturing errors often requires extensive testing or analysis by experts. If the accident appeared to involve any malfunction, including brakes, steering, or safety equipment, an attorney could help determine whether to pursue an action against the manufacturer.
Strong evidence of negligence is important for a successful wrongful death action. For motor vehicle accidents, one key step for compiling evidence is to get a police report. A police report will include any citations issued to a driver, pictures from the accident scene, and statements and contact information for witnesses. A wrongful death attorney can work with you to analyze the strength of your case and provide additional support in gathering evidence to support your claim.
Bringing a Timely Wrongful Death Claim
To secure a recovery for a loved one’s wrongful death, you must bring a wrongful death claim in compliance with Florida statutes. These laws provide guardrails for the timing of wrongful death claims, the parties who can seek recovery, and what damages are recoverable.
Do Not Delay
Pursuing a wrongful death action may not feel like a priority for days, months, or even years after losing a loved one. It is important, however, to prioritize legal action to ensure you can secure recovery. Florida law provides interested parties with two years to bring a wrongful death lawsuit.
Two years may feel like an ample amount of time to take action, but it can flash by quickly—especially because significant work and analysis are often required before filing a claim.
In addition to processing emotions after the loss, you will need time to prepare your claim including:
- Determining the appropriate party to act as a personal representative on behalf of the estate;
- Compiling evidence of negligence;
- Communicating with insurance companies;
- Establishing a damages claim, including consultation with experts as needed;
- Considering settlement offers made before filing; and
- Preparing court filings.
In addition to the above, you may not feel the impact of the financial loss associated with the death for some time, causing you to delay the prioritization of legal action. The defendant or insurance agency may string you along with promises of settlement offers or other delay tactics. These will all result in losing valuable time in your ability to file a lawsuit.
To avoid missing your window for legal action, contact an attorney immediately after the accident. An attorney could work to ensure your claim is prepared and filed within two years. If the statute of limitations has already run on your claim, an attorney could analyze whether any exceptions apply.
Standing to Bring a Wrongful Death Action
Another factor that may cause a delay in bringing a wrongful death action is identifying the correct party to pursue an action on behalf of the victim. If every beneficiary brought a claim, it would create the potential for multiple conflicting claims that slow down recovery and congest the court’s docket.
To eliminate this unnecessary complexity, Florida law only authorizes the victim’s personal representative to bring the action. The victim’s will or estate planning document will determine the personal representative. If the victim did not leave a will, an attorney could help you determine who is qualified to act as a personal representative.
The personal representative is responsible for recovering and distributing damages for the benefit of the victim’s family, estate, and creditors. The personal representative must establish a fair and reasonable method for dividing the recovery between all interested parties. The personal representative is required to pay against the victim’s debts, which reduces the recovery available for beneficiaries.
There is no need to seek court approval for the distribution unless a survivor objects or a minor or individual deemed incompetent is a beneficiary. Even when court approval is not required, the personal representative could seek court approval to avoid future challenges to the distribution.
The responsibilities of the personal representative are the same regardless of whether a recovery comes as the result of a full jury trial or because of an accepted settlement offer.
Establishing a Damages Claim
The loss of a loved one can be so life-altering that it could seem overwhelming to place a dollar figure on that loss. Florida law takes some of the ambiguity away from this analysis by clearly detailing which categories of damages are available to victim beneficiaries under Florida law.
The available types of damages include:
- Loss of support: If the victim provided financial support for any survivors, they may be entitled to compensation for the lost support or services they would have otherwise continued to receive. These damages include the loss of support or services from the date of the injury. When determining a damages figure, the jury is asked to consider the amount of support the victim was providing to a claimant before death, as well as the relationship between the victim and the claimant.
- Mental pain and suffering: It is impossible to quantify the effect that loss of a loved one can have on an individual. However, it is important to ensure that the loss is compensated. A surviving spouse and minor children can recover damages for mental distress. If the victim is a minor, the surviving parents can recover monetary damages for mental pain and suffering.
- Loss of companionship and protection: Death leaves a hole in the lives of those who loved them, and recovery for this loss is available in a wrongful death action. A surviving spouse and any minor child may be entitled to recover for the loss of companionship and protection as a result of their loss. Adult children may only recover if there is no surviving spouse.
- Medical costs: If the victim did not die on the scene, they may receive medical support. Any medical expenses associated with the accident could be recoverable by the party who paid the expenses. Additionally, funeral expenses could also be recoverable.
- Lost earnings and wages: Wrongful death victims are often important financial contributors to their household. The unplanned loss of this consistent income can leave survivors reeling. If the victim has a surviving spouse or other descendants, the personal representative is responsible for pursuing recovery of the victim’s lost earnings from the date of the injury and looking forward to future anticipated earnings.
The quantification of the above damages is complicated and often requires input from financial and medical experts. For example, calculation of lost future earnings will require evaluation of the individual’s projected career trajectory as well as predicted life span, were it not for the accident. Experienced attorneys could coordinate with experts as needed.
As discussed above, compiling an accurate damages claim is one-step that can delay filing a lawsuit promptly. The amount of time it takes to fully assess damages is often underestimated, especially in wrongful death suits that can involve multiple beneficiaries. It is worth the time and effort to establish a strongly supported damages claim. Begin the process as soon as possible.
Even if you do not take your wrongful death claim all the way to a jury decision, the damages demand you include in your suit will influence settlement offers from the defendant and their insurance company. Work with your attorney to evaluate any settlement offer. A settlement provides a more efficient path to a guaranteed recovery, but settlement offers may significantly undervalue the damages the beneficiaries deserve.
Contact an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney
If you have lost a loved one, not only will you have to deal with the emotional trauma, but you will also need to consider the financial impacts of the loss.
Without a wrongful death lawyer, you will carry the burden of communicating with insurance companies, managing immediate medical and funeral expenses, determining who is authorized to act as the victim’s personal representative, preserving evidence of the defendant’s negligence, establishing a damages claim, and considering settlement offers from the defendant. To top it off, you will need to accomplish this before the statute of limitations has run out.
An experienced wrongful death attorney can be an invaluable partner as you navigate this complicated process. Contact a wrongful death lawyer today for a free consultation.
Michael T. Gibson, P.A., Auto Justice Attorney
2420 S. Lakemont Avenue
Orlando, FL 32814