Wrongful Death in Motor Vehicle Accidents

When someone dies as a result of a motor vehicle accident, the victim’s family can pursue a wrongful death claim against the at-fault party. It’s important to understand what the wrongful death laws are in Florida so that you know how best to proceed.

In this article, we will cover what happens when someone dies as a result of an accident, if the at-fault party is criminally liable, and what compensation is available. If you have an specific questions that you would like to talk to a personal injury attorney about, please contact us for a free consultation.

Is the at-fault party in a car accident civilly or criminally liable?

Following a motor vehicle accident, an individual can be charged through both the civil and criminal systems in Florida, depending on the facts surrounding the collision.

The most common scenario is the individual found to be at-fault is issued a careless driving citation by a local law enforcement officer.

Careless driving is governed by Florida statute 316.1925. Basically, when you are given a license in the state of Florida, you agree to operate your vehicle upon the streets or highways in a careful and prudent manner, taking into consideration the life or property of another person. Failure to drive in such a manner shall constitute careless driving and a violation of the law.

Careless driving citations are known as moving violations and are brought against an individual civilly.

On the other hand, if the law enforcement officer feels the facts warrant a criminal charge, the officer will charge the individual with reckless driving.

According to Florida statute 316.192, any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving. The statute defines willful as intentional, knowing, and purposeful. The statute also defines wanton as conscious and intentional indifference to consequences, and with the knowledge that damage is likely to be done to persons or property.

In essence, you can be convicted of reckless driving if you are purposely driving your vehicle in a manner that is dangerous to the safety of others around you, and not taking into consideration the rules of the road.

The most serious criminal charge for reckless driving is vehicular homicide. Vehicular homicide is also known as vehicular manslaughter. To be charged with vehicular homicide, an individual must be driving in a reckless manner as defined above, and cause death to another person.

While reckless driving is a criminal charge, the civil courts will allow for additional damages if the plaintiffs can prove that the at-fault party acted with gross negligence. The additional damages are considered punitive damages and are meant to punish or deter similar conduct in the future.

Gross negligence is not easy to prove. To be successful, the plaintiff must prove that the at-fault party acted with conscious disregard or indifference to others safety, life, or rights. While ordinary negligence involves the violation of a general duty to act with reasonable care, gross negligence, there is an added element of recklessness.

For example, an argument can be made that if the at-fault party was driving drunk, they were acting in a reckless way, and punitive damages should be awarded.

Do I have a personal injury case or a wrongful death case?

If an accident results in death, an individual loses the right to sue in personal injury and must bring a wrongful death action. If the negligence or intentional conduct does not involve death, then there is no wrongful death case. Wrongful death cases only occur when a person loses his or her life as a result of intentional acts or negligence of another.

It is important to take note and remember that an action for personal injury and wrongful death cannot exist at the same time.

Who can bring a wrongful death claim?

Although the death of a loved one can affect many different people, Florida law is pretty clear on who can bring a wrongful death action. One group of individuals who may bring a wrongful death claim are the surviving family members of the decedent.

Most wrongful death cases are filed by spouses and parents. However, you may also file a claim if you are the child of the decedent.

More than one party may file a claim for compensation in the event of wrongful death. However, the general class of people that have standing to bring an action in court is those who are wholly or partially dependent on the deceased for support or maintenance.

Florida statute directs that the action shall be brought by the decedent’s personal representative. The other group of individuals who can recover under wrongful death is the decedent’s estate. The decedent’s estate will be any beneficiaries under the decedent’s will. If there is no will, the decedent’s lineage, as defined by Florida law, may bring a claim.

What damages are available in a wrongful death claim?

To successfully bring a wrongful death claim, the surviving family members must prove that the death of their loved one was the result of another’s negligence. Damages must be proven as well.

It is important to act quickly if you feel you have a valid wrongful death claim. An individual must bring a wrongful death claim within two years from the date of death. This is extremely important.

The damages awarded in a wrongful death action are called compensatory damages. These damages are meant to compensate the surviving family members for the loss of their loved ones. The Florida wrongful death statute, section 768.21, clearly describes what damages survivors are entitled to. These differ from a normal personal injury case.

In personal injury cases, the compensation arises from any lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering.

In a wrongful death case, the survivors may be entitled to damages if they can prove loss of companionship, loss of instruction, and loss of guidance. The survivors can also collect the potential future earnings of the decedent. One can also be reimbursed for any funeral or medical expenses, which accrued from the death.

In regard to minor children, minor children who lose a parent may be entitled to damages for loss of compensation, loss of instruction, and loss of guidance. Furthermore, minor children are entitled to damages for loss of support and companionship.

The statute defines a minor as anyone under the age of 25. Unfortunately, the way the statute is written, if a child is over the age of 25, they are considered to be an adult and can only recover loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance as a result of a motor vehicle accident if the deceased had no surviving spouse.

Also, as discussed in the earlier section above, when describing the civil remedy of gross negligence, an award of punitive damages or excess damages may be awarded by the jury in their discretion in a wrongful death case if the act in question was especially negligent or grossly negligent.

As part of compensatory damages, courts may award the income the decedent may have earned if they lived. In such cases, lost income will be calculated based on the age of the victim at the time of death, the victim’s average life expectancy, and earning potential.

Damages such as grief and emotional distress may also be included in the compensatory damages.

On the other hand, the estate, which is those left in the decedent’s will, can only collect damages for loss of net accumulations, decedent’s lost earnings, and decedent’s medical and funeral expenses.

As you can notice, the decedent’s estate cannot collect all of the damages available to a surviving family member. One of the many differences between a personal injury case and a wrongful death case is how to deal with any minors who may be survivors.

How do the courts handle damages awarded to minors?

The wrongful death statute defines a minor as anyone under 25. In the event of a recovery for a minor, according to the statute, courts will typically order a guardian to be assigned to any minor children who are awarded monetary damages. The reason this guardianship occurs is to provide protection and keep the minors’ best interest in mind for settlement purposes.

Get Help Today

Dealing with a death in the family is never easy, and brings unneeded stress to one’s life. Additionally, the wrongful death statute is dense and can be frustrating to understand at times. With that, it is strongly encouraged that you consult with an attorney about the filing of a wrongful death claim, and to ensure you are receiving adequate compensation to account for the death of your loved ones.

View related video here: Wrongful Death in Motor Vehicle Accident Cases


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