What Happens When Someone Dies in a Car Accident?


A fatal car accident is traumatic for all involved, and multiple times more costly than less severe accidents. Seeking compensation can be complicated, depending on accident circumstances and insurance coverage.

Car accidents that result in someone dying make up a small percentage of overall accidents, but their impact is far more devastating. In 2021, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report stated that  42,915 people died as a result of a vehicle accident in the U.S., out of more than 6 million police-reported crashes overall.

While fatalities occur in less than 1% of U.S. car accidents, the loss of a human life is incalculable in terms of what it means to those left behind, and what impact the person may have had on loved ones, friends and the world around them. Of the costs that can be calculated, a fatal car accident is also devastating.

The average cost of a fatal motor vehicle accident is $1.75 million, when taking into account wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, motor-vehicle damage, and employers’ uninsured costs. Compare that to the cost of the average disabling accident ($101,000), one that causes an injury ($29,000) and one that’s property damage only ($4,700). Drivers make up about half of the car accident fatalities, but passengers make up nearly half, with pedestrians and cyclists making up the balance.

The fallout from a car accident can continue for years to come for anyone involved in the accident, whether they were at fault or not at fault.

Compensation for Fatal Car Accidents

What happens when someone is killed in a car accident as far as insurance compensation has to do with a lot of factors, including how many vehicles were involved; who is at fault in the accident; the type of insurance; and what state the accident happened in.

Most auto insurance will cover a death, but also contain a maximum payout benefit. Because the costs of a fatal accident are so much higher than other accidents, the costs often far exceed the maximum payout.  The estate of someone who died in a car accident must file an insurance claim to seek compensation.

More than half of fatal car accidents are single-car accidents, meaning there isn’t another driver to seek compensation from, so the driver’s insurance is responsible for compensating any victims. Any passengers in the vehicle are just as likely to be a victim as the driver.

The family of a passenger, or another driver if more than one car was involved in the accident and the other driver is at fault, may file a wrongful death suit to get full coverage for their loss. Who is compensated depends on the family the victim leaves behind. The suit must be filed by the victim’s estate, and those eligible for compensation include:

  • Spouse of the person who died
  • Children, if they are left parentless by the accident
  • Parents of the person who died if they are the closest family

Does Car Insurance Cover Death?

A car insurance policy will usually cover a car accident fatality if the death is a direct result of the accident, though there are exceptions (suicide, negligence on the part of the person who died, etc.)

What will be covered, and for how much, depends on what state the policy-holder lives in and what their insurance coverage is. In most cases, auto insurance will cover medical bills and funeral expenses of the person who died. In no-fault states, the Personal Injury Protection (PIP) of the driver will cover a fatality in their vehicle. No matter what type of coverage it is, it’s limited by the policy maximum payout.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit

The estate of the victim of a fatal car accident can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the at-fault driver if their insurance doesn’t cover all costs, or they’re not insured. A lawsuit or a car accident settlement spurred by one can cover a much wider range of damages than what an auto insurance policy will. This includes if the passenger was a victim of a single-car fatal accident.

What specific damages can be sued for differ, depending on the state, but in general, a wrongful death suit can seek:

  • Medical expenses before death, including ambulance and any treatment before the person died
  • Funeral and burial costs
  • Pain and suffering for the deceased, if death wasn’t instantaneous
  • Loss of the deceased’s income
  • Loss of services, for instance if the family had to pay for child care, or other services, to perform tasks the deceased would have
  • Loss of companionship or consortium for children or a spouse

» Learn More: How Compensation Works After a Car Accident Death

Legal Consequences of a Fatal Car Accident

There aren’t always legal consequences after a fatal car accident. Sometimes an accident is no one’s fault. For instance, a car slides on an ice-click highway, striking another car, or a tree limb falls on a vehicle. But often, a car accident is fatal because someone was negligent, reckless, or even had malicious intent.

Speeding is the most common factor in fatal car accidents, followed by alcohol use. Both can result in legal consequences for a driver.

An at-fault driver’s behavior will determine how severe the legal consequences are. For instance, a driver who glances at a cellphone and crosses into oncoming traffic, causing a fatal accident, will likely face lesser charges than a driver who’s going 30 miles over the speed limit, or driving while impaired. Legal charges after a fatal accident could range from simply being charged with a violation to be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Reckless Driving

Drivers have a legal obligation to stick to the rules of the road and drive safely. Reckless driving, as a legal term, means driving with a willful or wanton disregard for safety, or showing willful disregard of consequences when operating a vehicle. States have different rules and penalties and may call it “careless driving” or “driving to endanger,” but violations are similar, resulting in a misdemeanor or other criminal charge, rather than an infraction.

Driving a certain amount over the speed limit, racing, eluding a police officer, passing on a double yellow line, and other behavior that is a clear violation of the law or safe driving may result in a reckless driving charge, depending on the state. Penalties may involve a fine, loss of license, or more. If it causes a crash that involves someone’s death, the penalties may be much greater, including jail time.

Vehicular Homicide

Reckless driving, or a more serious driving offense that results in a fatal accident, may lead to a charge of vehicular homicide, called vehicular manslaughter in some states. Vehicular homicide is a legal charge that stems from driving violations that lead to the death of someone. Laws vary from state to state.  In some states, reckless driving that causes a fatal accident may result in a vehicular homicide charge, while in other states, gross negligence may have to be proved.

In all states, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver’s actions meet the elements of the law and resulted in the other person’s death.

Driving while intoxicated, excessive speed, illegal passing and running a red light are all actions that may result in a vehicular homicide charge in many states.

Penalties for vehicular homicide can include prison times, loss of a driver’s license, and costly fines.

What Happens if the At-Fault Driver is Deceased?

An at-fault driver can still be held responsible for a fatal car accident.

Their insurance company must still pay compensation for the accident, and the other driver, or their estate if the other driver also died, can still file a wrongful death suit.

Filing a wrongful death suit may be complicated by the probate process and take longer than a lawsuit against a living person may take.

Should I Hire an Attorney After a Fatal Car Accident?

A car accident in which someone dies is complicated and expensive, as well as traumatic for all involved.

Sorting out who is at fault, what laws may have been violated, and even who to seek compensation from, are much more difficult than in a less severe accident.

Car accident attorneys offer a free initial consultation and speaking to one can help clarify issues. Car accident attorneys often work on a contingency basis, meaning they are paid a percentage of the settlement they win. Car accident attorneys also have the resources to investigate accidents and negotiate with insurance companies.

An attorney can sort out the consequences of a fatal car accident for anyone involved, whether they are the driver of a car in which a passenger died, the family of a driver who died, or the driver of a car that was in a crash in which a driver or passenger in another car died.

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken has a three-decade career as a journalist at daily newspapers and publications that focus on business and consumer finance. She covered several beats during her newspaper career, including local and state news, features on prominent public officials and several years running a sports department. She is a subject expert on topics that include consumer debt, consumer credit, labor issues, financial abuse, rural development, and legal matters resulting from accidents in the workplace and on the roads. She is adept at presenting complicated topics in an easy-to-read format that helps readers understand the topic's impact on their lives … and their pocketbooks!

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