Over the last decade, more than 2,500 people have died in Connecticut car accidents. And in many cases, the victim was not even the one who caused the accident. The victim of a car accident can normally file a personal injury claim against the person who caused the accident. But what should you do if the victim dies in the accident or dies later in the hospital? The answer is provided by the Connecticut Wrongful Death Act: a wrongful death claim.
What Is “Wrongful Death”?
A wrongful death occurs when one person dies as a result of the wrongful conduct of another. The test of whether a wrongful death claim is viable is whether the victim would have been entitled to file a personal injury claim if he had survived the accident. “Wrongful” can be broken down into four categories:
Negligence is essentially a fancy legal word for carelessness, although the two words are not 100 percent identical. A person is negligent when he deviates from the standard of care that the law requires. A driver on the road, for example, is expected to exercise the level of care of a reasonably prudent person. A doctor treating a car accident victim for a head injury, by contrast, is held to a much higher standard of care.
Negligence can be committed by act or omission. In other words, either by doing something that you shouldn’t have done (accidentally driving the wrong way on a one-way street, for example), or by not doing something that you should have done (accidentally running a stop sign, for example).
A person is reckless when he puts another person at risk while knowing of the risk. Although he doesn’t intend to harm the victim, he knowingly puts the victim at risk of harm. Driving while intoxicated is an example of reckless behavior, as is deliberately driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Recklessness is distinguished from negligence in that a reckless driver knows the risk he is taking, while the negligent driver is not aware of the risk, but should be.
Intentional misconduct is conduct that is designed to produce the result it does, or that is committed with utter indifference to the results. In the context of a car accident, it could mean deliberately running someone off the road in a fit of “road rage.”
Defective Product (Strict Liability)
Suppose that someone is killed in a car accident caused by a defectively manufactured brake drum. In that case, a wrongful death product liability claim would likely arise against the manufacturer. The person asserting the claim does not have to prove that the manufacturer was negligent – he must only establish that the brake drum was defective and unreasonably dangerous. Under product liability law, wrongful behavior is inferred from the defect.
Who Can File a Connecticut Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
In Connecticut, the only one who is entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit is the executor or personal representative of the deceased victim’s probate estate. If the victim died with a valid will, this will probably be the person named in the victim’s will. Not all victims die with valid wills (imagine a child victim, for example). If there is no valid will, the probate court will select a personal representative – probably a close relative.
Compensation in a wrongful death lawsuit can be substantial. In fact, it can amount to more than the amount that the victim would have received if he had survived with catastrophic injuries. Wrongful death damages are generally distributed to the deceased victim’s probate estate for eventual distribution to estate beneficiaries.
The following are some examples of the types of compensation that are available in a Connecticut wrongful death lawsuit.
- Medical Expenses: If the victim died at the scene of the accident, medical expenses may be negligible. If the victim died some time later, however, medical expenses could be significant. The responsible party can be held liable for whatever medical expenses are incurred on behalf of the victim between the date of the accident and the date of death of the victim.
- Lost Earnings: The victim’s estate is entitled to compensation for all of the earnings that the victim would have collected if the accident had not occurred. The total amount is subject to deductions for income taxes, basic living expenses, and inflation.
- Loss of Ability to Enjoy Life’s Activities: When someone dies, they lose the ability to enjoy life’s activities, such as work, hobbies, and quality time with family. This loss can be compensated for under Connecticut law.
- Pain and Suffering: “Pain and suffering” refers to the physical pain and suffering endured by the victim before he died. If the victim was killed instantly, pain and suffering compensation might be negligible. If the victim died a lingering death, however, pain and suffering compensation could be quite significant.
- Loss of Consortium: The surviving spouse and children can file a separate claim for “loss of consortium.” This refers to loss of companionship and, in the case of a spouse, loss of sexual relations. This amount goes directly to the spouse and/or children, not to the victim’s probate estate.
- Funeral and Burial Expenses: Funeral and burial expenses are awarded to the party that paid them or owes them (typically the probate estate itself).
Double and Triple Damages
When a driver causes an accident through recklessness or intentional misconduct (as opposed to mere negligence), and this behavior substantially contributed to the victim’s death, the personal representative of the victim’s probate estate (who must file the lawsuit) can ask for double or triple damages by including this demand in the initial complaint. Demanding double or triple damages is probably appropriate, for example, where the death was caused by a DUI accident.
Compensation for a wrongful death can be reduced or even eliminated altogether if the victim was partially responsible for the accident:
- If the victim was at least 51 percent responsible for the accident, no wrongful death compensation will be awarded.
- If the victim was less than 51 percent at fault, his percentage of fault will be subtracted from the available compensation on a strictly proportional basis. If the victim was 20 percent at fault, for example, 20 percent will be subtracted from the compensation award.
Comparative fault does not apply to strict product liability claims. In other words, a compensation award will not be reduced based on the victim’s comparative negligence (misuse of the product, however, can be used as a defense against a products liability claim).
The Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations sets the deadline for filing a lawsuit. If you miss the deadline, even private settlement negotiations will be useless. In Connecticut, the general deadline is two years after the victim’s date of death – although narrow exceptions to this limit sometimes apply. In no case, however, may a lawsuit be filed more than five years after the victim’s death.
Special Case #1: Dram Shop Claims Arising from DUI Accidents
Under Connecticut’s dram shop act, it is possible, in certain instances, to sue a nightclub for serving alcohol to an intoxicated patron if the patron’s intoxication later caused a car accident that injured or killed someone. The bar can only be held liable if its act of serving the intoxicated patron constituted recklessness or intentional misconduct – mere negligence is not enough.
This law could come in handy if your loved one was killed by a drunk driver. Even if the driver was carrying the minimum amount ($20,000) of liability insurance required by Connecticut law, your wrongful death claim is likely to be worth far more than this amount. To hold a nightclub liable, however, you must comply with special time limitations and the amount of recovery is limited to $250,000. These restrictions apply to the nightclub, not to the claim against the driver.
Special Case #2: Employer Liability
In Connecticut, an employer is considered strictly liable for the harm caused by the wrongful behavior of one of its employees. A pizza parlor, for example, would probably be liable for an on-duty accident caused by a pizza delivery driver. Since this liability applies to the wrongful behavior of employees but not independent contractors, most of the time, trucking companies are not liable for the wrongful behavior of their truck drivers.
The Difference between a Wrongful Death Claim and a Criminal Prosecution
A wrongful death claim and a criminal prosecution are two completely separate processes. Both can occur at the same time, or one can occur without the other. They are quite different from each other.
In a wrongful death lawsuit, it is plaintiff vs. defendant (the personal representative of the victim’s probate estate vs. the offending driver or, perhaps, the driver’s employer or some other responsible party). In a criminal prosecution, it is usually the State of Connecticut vs. the offending driver – although, in some cases, it might be the US government vs. the offending driver.
The Burden of Proof
The burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The burden of proof in a wrongful death lawsuit is “a preponderance of the evidence,” which is a much easier standard to meet. In other words, it is much easier to win a wrongful death lawsuit than it is to win a criminal conviction. For this reason, there may be no reason to abandon a wrongful death lawsuit, even if the state failed to convict the defendant on, say, a voluntary manslaughter charge.
Get Started Today
If your loved one died in a car accident that you believe may have been the fault of someone else, now is not the time to sit around with a “wait and see” attitude. Your claim needs to be investigated and, if it is found to have merit, aggressively pursued. We can do that for you.