How Compensation Works After a Car Accident Death
Nothing can replace a person who dies in a car accident, but their survivors are entitled to compensation if the death resulted from someone’s negligence. How much compensation is received depends on insurance coverage, the state the accident happened in, the relation to the victim and more.
When someone dies in a car accident, their spouse, children or parents may be compensated through a wrongful death claim, if the death was because of someone else’s negligence.
There’s no “typical” car accident death compensation amount. Factors that determine how much it will be include the at-fault driver’s insurance coverage, the state where the accident happened, the nature of the accident and even who the victim’s survivors are.
In 2020, 38,824 people died in 35,766 U.S. vehicle accidents. One statistic that has been consistent over the years is that more than half of fatal accidents are single-vehicle crashes. Another consistent trend is that, no matter how many vehicles are involved in an accident, drivers comprise more than half of victims. Pedestrians are the next largest victim group, with non-driver occupants a distant third.
If negligence can be proved, compensation will largely come from insurance of the at-fault driver or other negligent party (for instance, the company that employed the at-fault driver, the county that was supposed to maintain the road, etc.) A victim’s family member may have to take the negligent party to court to get the amount of compensation they deserve.
» Learn More: What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?
Who Is Entitled to Compensation?
Compensation for death in a car accident goes to the immediate survivor, or survivors, of the victim. Most states define this as spouse and dependent children. If the victim was not married and had no children, his or her parents would be compensated.
The purpose of car accident death compensation is that someone who depended on the person who died will recoup some of the financial loss from no longer having the person in their life, as well as support for the emotional and physical loss of the person. The details of how it works, and who will get compensated, depend on what state the accident happens in.
Daniel J. Siegel, secretary, American Bar Association, Law Practice Divisions, said the distinction between whether the accident victim has dependents, like a spouse or children, or more distant heirs, can have an impact on the amount.
In Florida, a victim and survivor must have been legally married for the surviving partner to get compensation, Ira H. Leesfield, managing partner at at Leesfield Scolaro said. “If the victim is not married, it would go to their children.”
He said that for any survivor to be compensated, the estate must be opened by the victim’s personal representative. This involves filing a death certificate with the county or state.
In some states, domestic partners or “putative spouses,” also known as common law spouses, may make a wrongful death claim. A few states also allow relatives such as siblings to file a claim if there is not a spouse, children or parent.
How Much Is the Compensation for a Death in a Fatal Car Accident?
Wrongful death car accident settlements aren’t made public, so there’s no good way to gauge an average settlement.
“Typically, there is no cap on damages for the survivors of a fatal accident,” Leesfield said. “The range can be almost anywhere, based upon the liability, insurance coverage and circumstances.”
The amount of compensation depends on financial factors (the victim’s income, medical and funeral expenses, etc.), non-financial (pain and suffering, the age of the victim, age of survivors, etc.) and punitive (punishment for gross negligence). State laws where the accident happened, the insurance coverage of the person at fault, all come in to play.
The highest publicly reported motor vehicle wrongful death settlement in the U.S. in 2021 was $52.98 million, a jury verdict in Georgia on a claim filed by the widow of a motorcyclist who hit a car that took an illegal left turn in front of him.
That case aside, most big money cases are won against trucking companies or other businesses, the car manufacturer, or governments that are deemed negligent in some way. In the case of a single-car accident, the driver is often considered to be at fault. But if the driver dies, the family may look at whether factors like a malfunctioning car, or issue with the road, caused the accident.
“There are many aspects to handling fatal accident claims,” Siegel, who handled car accident claims for 40 years, said. “First and foremost is determining whether there is conscious pain and suffering or whether the victim died on impact. The answer to this question in many states determines the types of damages to which the victim’s estate is entitled.”
In those states that allow it, conscious pain and suffering, the legal term for a victim who is aware of their pain or even the terror of the moment before an accident, can add to the amount of a claim.
Determining Financial Loss
The victim who is seeking compensation will have to prove why they’re asking for a certain amount. An attorney can help determine all the sources for financial loss that a survivor may seek.
Some of the most common documentation that will help is:
- Medical bills for any treatment the victim received before death
- Funeral and burial cost receipts
- The decedent’s proof of income
- Household services (like day care or lawn care) survivors had to pay for because of the loss
- Loss of survivor’s income because of their spouse’s death
Non-economic and Punitive Damages
It’s more difficult to determine the worth of non-economic damages from a fatal car accident, like loss of companionship and consortium, pain and suffering of the survivors, conscious pain and suffering of the victim, and more.
Punitive damages, an amount meant to punish the person at fault for the death, are often subject to state law. In general, they are determined by intangibles like how much the defendant’s behavior affected the outcome of the accident, what the defendant’s assets are, how much of a threat the defendant poses to the community, and more.
An experienced car accident attorney can navigate the legal and evidentiary landscape of non-economic damages.
Wrongful Death Claim Caps
Nine states prohibit caps on wrongful death claims. Other states have caps, but vary in what’s capped. Some don’t allow punitive damages; 11 cap non-economic claims.
In Maine, all wrongful death claims are capped at $500,000, and punitive damages are capped at $250,000.
Some states extend their sovereign immunity from lawsuits to cap claims against state and local government. In Florida, for instance, the cap is $200,000 per claim and $300,000 per accident.
Some states also split the fault, reducing the amount of an award based on the victim’s share of fault. In a few states, if the victim is found even 1% at fault, there’s no claim.
Compensation Options for a Car Accident Death
“Insurance coverage is often the most determining factor in a vehicular wrongful death case,” Leesfield said.
Most states have a minimum bodily injury liability amount that drivers must carry, which also covers wrongful death. State requirements range from $10,000 to $50,000, meaning the driver is required to carry insurance that will pay that much in bodily injury. Once a claim exceeds what the at-fault driver is covered for, getting more compensation can get tricky.
Leesfield said that the victim’s family should check to see if the victim had uninsured motorist coverage, which is required in some states, and an option in others.
Siegel said that those filing a wrongful death claim should seek out any other possible insurance sources. “There should be an investigation into any insurance policies with death benefits,” he said. “This is just the beginning of the process.”
The claim must be filed by the person who would be compensated, or their representative.
If a personal representative of the estate has been named by probate court, they’re the one who files it. “This is typically a family member who brings an action on behalf of all other potential survivors,” Leesfield said.
If the insurance settlement isn’t adequate, or the company fights the claim, the survivor may file a lawsuit. Since compensation for death in a car accident can be complicated, it is recommended that a claimant hire a car accident attorney. Most work on a contingent basis, taking a portion of the settlement as their fee.
Proving Your Case
To prove wrongful death, there must be evidence that the person responsible breached their “duty of care,” and this resulted in the victim’s death.
An example would be that a driver who was looking at their cellphone ran a redlight and hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The driver had a duty of care to drive safely but was negligent in that duty. This resulted in the death of the pedestrian.
To prove the case, the person making the claim would use police reports, witness statements, medical evidence, expert analysis and more. Evidence could also include proving a motor vehicle defects or dangerous road situation that caused the accident, particularly in the case of a single-vehicle accident where the driver or a passenger died.
If the at-fault driver was believed to be on their phone, the claimant (or their attorney) could seek their phone records. If the at-fault driver was under the influence of alcohol, not only is the police report and blood-alcohol level important, but the claimant could check witnesses and staff at the bar where he was drinking, if that’s a factor.
“The avenues for compensation are only limited by the lack of industry and imagination by the trial lawyer,” Leesfield said. He said that attorneys should make sure to check for things like nearby CCTV, and electronic “black box” information the gives data about the car’s operation, and to inspect all the vehicles involved.
How Long Will the Process Take?
If the insurance company agrees to pay the claim in the amount the victim’s survivor is seeking, the case can be resolved relatively quickly, in a matter of months.
But there are a lot of moving parts, and gathering documents and information to show financial loss, putting together the evidence and negotiating with the insurance company can take months.
“Typically, a wrongful death case would get resolved in 6 to 8 months, depending upon the amount of coverage and the level of liability,” Leesfield said.
Leesfield said using alternative dispute resolution, which is arbitration or mediation, to settle a case, can shorten the process.
If the case goes to court, it can take years. The Georgia case that resulted in the $52.98 million settlement took 12 years.
- N.A. (2021, March 16) Kennison v. Mayfield. Retrieved from https://casetext.com/case/kennison-v-mayfield
- N.A. (2022, December) Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First 9 Months (January-September) 2022. Retrieved from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/813406
- N.A. (ND) Facts + Statistics: Uninsured Motorists. Retrieved from https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-uninsured-motorists
- N.A. (ND) Auto Insurance Basics: Understanding Your Coverage. Retrieved from https://www.iii.org/article/auto-insurance-basics-understanding-your-coverage
- N.A. (ND) Top 10 Wrongful Death Settlements in the United States in 2021. Retrieved from https://topverdict.com/lists/2021/united-states/top-10-wrongful-death-settlements
- Ryskamp, D.A. (2022, April 27) The Current State of State Damage Caps. Retrieved from https://www.expertinstitute.com/resources/insights/state-state-damage-caps/