Many car accident victims are fortunate enough to escape without injury. Tragically, others are not so lucky and as a result of another driver’s negligence, lose their lives as a result of the injuries they sustained. Although nothing can compensate a victim’s family for their loss, obtaining recovery from the responsible parties can help ease their financial strain. Identifying liable parties and navigating the legal system can be time-consuming and difficult, so if you lost a loved one in a car crash, it is important to speak with an experienced car accident attorney who can help you file a wrongful death claim.
One of the first steps that a victim’s family must take when pursuing a wrongful death claim is to determine who was at fault in the crash. This information can be discovered by obtaining a copy of the responding police officer’s report as well as any witness statements. Evidence and photographs from the scene can also be instrumental in determining what happened in a particular accident.
If the deceased’s family members determine that the victim’s conduct did not cause the crash, they should be able to collect the limits of the at-fault driver’s insurance policy. In South Carolina, all car owners must carry at least $25,000 of coverage, although this often does not cover the full cost of damages. The victim may also have medical insurance or underinsured motorist coverage that can help compensate the grieving family. Finally, if the deceased was a passenger in someone else’s car when the accident occurred, the car owner’s insurance may also cover certain costs.
Even if all parties involved in the crash have appropriate insurance, it is still extremely important to retain the services of an attorney before speaking with the other party’s insurer.
In South Carolina, wrongful death is defined as a death that is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another as long as the action would have allowed the victim (if he or she had lived) to pursue a personal injury claim. Wrongful death claims must be filed by the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate on behalf of the victim’s surviving family members. Usually the executor is named in the victim’s will. However, if there is no will or the executor cannot or does not wish to file the claim, the court can name an administrator to represent the deceased.
Under state law, only certain family members can recover damages in a wrongful death case, including the victim’s:
- Spouse and children;
- Parents, if the deceased had no spouse or child; and
- Legal heirs, if the deceased has no surviving parents, spouse, or child.
Although surviving parents are generally permitted to recover on behalf of their deceased children, they will be barred from recovery if they abandoned their deceased child before he or she turned 18 years old.
Unlike a criminal case involving charges of homicide, where a party’s conviction may result in imprisonment or fines, liability in a wrongful death case involves compensating the victim’s family for the following damages:
- Funeral and burial costs;
- Medical expenses and other costs associated with the victim’s injury;
- Lost wages;
- Property damage;
- Loss of future income;
- Loss of companionship;
- Lost benefits; and
- Pain and suffering experienced by the victim’s surviving family members.
In cases where the court finds that the conduct which caused the victim’s death was reckless or deliberate, it may award punitive damages, which are meant to punish the at-fault party and serve as a deterrent to others.
Wrongful death claims must be filed within three years of the date of the victim’s death. If a victim’s family fails to file within this time period, a judge will refuse to hear the case, thus barring the deceased’s family from obtaining compensation for their loss.
Before assigning punitive damages in a wrongful death case, courts will assess the conduct of the at-fault party to determine if he or she was negligent or reckless. Reckless behavior is any conduct that indicates that a driver had knowing disregard for the safety of others and was fully aware that his or her conduct might cause a crash. Reckless driving often involves:
- Improperly changing lanes;
- Failing to signal;
- Driving aggressively;
- Driving on the shoulder; and
At-fault parties who caused an accident by driving recklessly may be required to pay an additional penalty to a victim’s family, although that sum cannot exceed $500,000. This cap does not apply, however, if the deceased party’s representative can demonstrate that an exception applies, including that:
- At the time of the injury, the at-fault party intended to and did harm the victim;
- The defendant has previously pled guilty to or been convicted of a felony arising out of the same act that caused the victim’s death; or
- At the time of the crash, the defendant was under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or another type of toxic vapor to the point that his or her judgment was substantially impaired.
If a court finds that the defendant’s conduct falls within one of these categories, there will be no limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.
Contact an Experienced South Carolina Wrongful Death Attorney
Losing a loved one is always painful, but it is especially devastating when the loss could have been avoided. The emotional scars that the families of car accident victims must suffer may take years to heal and while no amount of money can erase that pain, holding the negligent party responsible can help families get back on their feet financially. If you are a South Carolina resident and you lost a loved one in a car crash, please contact the Connell Law Firm by filling out one of our standard online contact forms by providing your name, email address, phone number, and a brief summary of your case and we will help you schedule a meeting with one of our dedicated Columbia, SC wrongful death attorneys.