How Wrongful Death Truck Accident Cases Work
Losing a loved one is never easy. But losing a loved one due to something that is entirely preventable creates a pain all its own. Each year, thousands of families learn this firsthand by losing a loved one to an accident involving a commercial vehicle, such as an 18-wheeler or dump truck. When such an event occurs, most families understand intuitively that the law empowers them to do something, but very few understand exactly what rights they have.
We at Grossman Law Offices feel that subject is so important that its inner workings should be made clear. To that end, we've created this page to serve as a resource for those who have lost a loved one in an 18-wheeler accident. Here, you can learn more about fatal commercial truck accidents, how the law deals with them, and what surviving family members of accident victims need to know. We're confident that this page will answer many of the lingering questions you may have. But if it does not, please call us. Even if you're not yet ready to pursue a case, we're still here to answer your questions. We're more than happy to explain how the law works with no pressure at all.
In another article on this site, we've explained how to win an injury case against a trucking company, and many of those same concepts apply to the topic of fatal truck accident cases. You can read that article here. In this article, we'll explain some of the basics of truck accident cases, as well as some of the unique characteristics of fatal truck accidents that make them quite different than injurious accidents.
The main thing that you need to understand is that a truck accident case shouldn't be treated the same way you would treat a car accident case. Here's a helpful analogy: If your child was dealing with a bully at school, you'd probably be inclined to go talk to the bully and convince them to pick on someone else, and that would be a reasonable response relative to the opposition. But if your child was instead being stalked by a hardened criminal, you'd better get professional help. The same concept is at work in litigation. When you're involved in a routine car accident, the opposition isn't particularly fierce. However, when the vehicle that claimed your loved one's life is an 18-wheeler, you face a unique degree of opposition.
For starters, the driver who caused the accident makes his or her living by driving. If your case is successful against them, you can imagine the havoc that may wreak on their career. Because of this, they're often willing to say whatever they must to protect their ability to earn an income. In a quarter-century of litigating hundreds of truck accident cases, never once have we run across a defendant truck driver who admitted to causing the accident. Is that to say that all truck drivers are liars? Of course not. But enough of them are willing to lie that you should be concerned about it.
Furthermore, even the most honest truck driver who just so happened to cause a serious wreck is usually not in a position to share his feelings of guilt. After all, he works for a company that will ultimately bear liability for his mistakes, and that company, their insurance carrier, and their lawyers will put as much pressure on their own driver to stay quiet as they will put on you. And that, perhaps, is the main difference between a normal car accident case and a truck accident case: the insurance carrier and trucking company lawyers.
Trucking companies are required by law to carry quite valuable insurance policies, so their insurance carriers fight very hard to defend themselves. In a regular car accident, even one involving serious injuries or death, there just isn't much for the insurance carrier to worry about. The worst that can happen to the insurance carrier is that they have to pay out the limits of the insurance policy, which usually only means tens of thousands of dollars in compensation. On the contrary, trucking companies are required to carry major insurance policies that can be worth millions. Having to pay that out to an accident victim has the potential to seriously affect the company's bottom line. That means that their insurer is all too willing to go to bat and fight to defend their policy. This is true in injury as well as fatality truck accident cases.
Further, it's important that you know how these cases function. Let's start with an investigation.
Investigating a Fatal Truck Accident
The first thing any good attorney will do is when they're hired on a case is investigate thoroughly. A lot of attorneys will start things off by filing suit against the trucking company (or whoever is at fault) right away without waiting to see what really happened. They'll shoot first and ask questions later.
The way it should work is that an attorney should hold off on filing suit until he knows that it's strategically in your best interest to do so. That is to say, the investigation should tell you how the litigation (legal) process should go, and not the other way around. Before filing suit, there are many factors that should be considered:
- Should you file one claim against the trucking company or several claims against different defendants?
- What about the driver?
- How about any kind of mechanical defects or malfunctioning parts on the 18-wheeler itself?
- Did your own car's safety systems work or did, say, an airbag fail to deploy?
- What about the liability of the company who loaded the freight onto the trailer?
These questions, and many others, should be asked by your attorney when investigating an accident involving a commercial truck. Failing to address these concerns can result in a compromised case. The last thing an attorney should do is muddle a case against a defendant who you know is responsible on the off chance that you can win a case against a defendant who may be responsible. For instance, if an 18-wheeler swerved to miss a slowing vehicle, resulting in a collision with your loved one's car, clearly the 18-wheeler is primarily at fault. Is the other vehicle also at fault? Maybe. Perhaps they should not have been slowing down in that section of road. Perhaps they did nothing wrong at all. The point is that if your attorney files suit against "all parties," as many inexperienced lawyers often do, they will have served the trucking company a perfect scapegoat in doing so. You want the trucking company to focus on their liability, not the liability of someone who may or may not have done anything wrong. A good legal strategy based on a sound investigation will help avoid such mistakes.
The other things that need to be included in the investigation are:
- Witness statements
- Police reports and investigations
- Electronic data from the 18-wheeler or truck
- The truck driver's complete professional history and personal record
- The history and track record of the trucking company he worked for
- Maintenance details and repair history for the 18-wheeler
After all, that information has been gathered, it's time to evaluate it and determine what the next course of action is. From this step forward, the "litigation" process has begun. If you're not familiar with the law, this is where things can get a little murky.
Litigating a Fatal Truck Accident Case
Depending on what the investigation reveals, the next step is usually to file suit with the trucking company and whoever else was at fault for the accident. That can be another driver, or even the manufacturer of the 18-wheeler itself if a defective part on the truck caused the accident.
In a nutshell, filing suit against a trucking company puts them on notice and makes them aware that they should prepare for a battle. Likewise, it also informs the court system of the trucking company's alleged transgressions. After a lawsuit is filed, your attorney will then try to settle the case in a satisfactory way, either in or out of court. Settling a case in mediation is very common in these situations.
How Fatal Truck Accident Cases Differ from Injury Cases
No lawsuit has any value until you prove it, and that means you have to prove that the damages (losses suffered in the accident) were severe and that the defendant (truck driver) is to blame. If your loved one was killed in an accident with a commercial truck, the value of that case can be significant. But if you can't prove that the truck driver was at fault, then there's no case at all. Conversely, if your loved one is killed in a trucking accident and the truck driver is at fault, the trucking company will do everything in its power to diminish the value of your case.
We already stated that trucking accidents are inherently different from car accidents, and now we'll talk about why fatal truck accident cases are different from injury truck accident cases.
First, the entire purpose of a fatal truck case isn't to get money or compensation, it's to make sure that the family of the deceased can get closure. While we know that pursuing compensation is important, the fact of the matter is that the truck driver and the trucking company need to be held accountable for their actions.
The Damages Are Different
Secondly, the damages in a fatal accident are different from those in an injury accident. In an injury case, you're suing for the damages and injuries you suffered in the accident. But in a fatal accident case, the lawsuit is about the family of the deceased asking for compensation for their losses - namely the death of their loved one in the accident. Obviously, if the person who died was a breadwinner for the family, their loss is going to be significant, which will increase the value of the case. The articles below explain filing a wrongful death claim and who is eligible to do so.
The Losses Are Subjective
As we mentioned above, the damages being sued for by the family represent their emotional suffering. Just like broken bones and other physical injuries, emotional distress and trauma are injuries that the courts recognize. These are more abstract and, as such, your lawyer will need to do a lot of work to prove them to a jury. Expert witnesses are used for this purpose and can help establish the value of the family's wrongful death case. In general, you can sue for things like:
- Emotional distress
- Mental anguish>
- Loss of spousal securities
- Loss of society
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of income
- Funeral expenses
However, there are some more concrete types of injuries that the family of the deceased can sue for in a wrongful death case. The representative of the decedent's estate can file a lawsuit on behalf of their deceased loved one. This is called a "survival claim," and it essentially represents the injury claim the deceased would have had if the accident hadn't been fatal. This includes all the injuries, pain, and suffering endured in the accident.
The insurance carrier and the trucking company are both going to put up quite a fight when it comes to accepting liability (fault) for a fatal accident. The main two ways you'll see resistance in your case is through 1) arguing who was to blame and 2) attacks on character.
Who's At Fault
Have you ever heard the phrase, "dead men tell no tales?" Fatal accidents with big rigs, 18-wheelers, and semi-trucks can sometimes leave both drivers dead, but many times the truck driver survives the accident because he's in a much bigger vehicle.
The trucking company will use this to their advantage because it's always easier to pin the blame on someone who's dead and can't argue otherwise. This is why evidence in your case is incredibly important.
But if the trucking company can't blame the entire accident on the victim, they may only try to blame part of the accident on the victim. This article below outlines the reasons a bit more clearly, but the basic idea is that each party is only responsible for their contribution to the accident. If the trucking company can lower their liability, they lower how much money they have to payout.
- Blaming the victim for the accident
- General defense tactics to expect from the trucking company
Attack on Character
Just like a playground fight between young children, the arguing in a trucking accident often devolves into name-calling. We're talking about attacks on the character of the loved one who died in the accident. If the trucking company can't outright prove that their driver wasn't at fault, then they'll resort to trying to devalue the claim of the victim by attacking their character.
By using things like social media, personal history, and any kind of police records, the trucking company will try to make a jury believe that the victim wasn't a very good person. This kind of behavior is abhorrent, but when a company with millions of dollars on the line is put in a tight spot, they fight dirty.
Be Prepared and Ask The Right Questions
Hopefully, this page has helped you understand what your rights are if your loved one has been killed in an 18-wheeler accident or an accident with another commercially-owned truck. The bottom line is that you have legal options to not only bring the trucking company to justice but also claim what would have been rightfully the deceased's.
But the biggest obstacle you'll face will be in the early stages of your case. The insurance company will be standing ready to bombard you with questions and investigations because they are ultimately trying to bring down the value of your claim.
One of the worst things you can do in the early stages is flat-out settle with the trucking company. Why? Because you'll ruin any claim you did have against them. When you sign a settlement and release form, you're agreeing to not sue them in exchange for money. The problem is that the trucking company's offer will never come close to what your claim would have been worth. Let's put it this way: if they were confident they could beat you in court, they wouldn't offer you a dime.
In the early stages of your case, it's crucial to get help from an attorney. You might be appointed as the executor of your loved one's estate, and that means you'll need to know how much your loved one's case would have been worth so you can get them fair treatment. As we said earlier, it's best to just not talk to the trucking company's insurance carrier, because they're simply looking for enough information to use against you.
Choosing an Attorney For Your Fatal Truck Accident Case
Don't make the mistake of settling early with the trucking company, and if you have claims on your behalf and your loved one's behalf, then you'll need the legal counsel of an experienced lawyer. We created this site to educate people about the law and explain it in simple terms. A lot of attorneys make their money by being vague and secretive about the litigation process so that everyone else is in the dark - we're not one of those firms.
However, you can't get around the fact that the law is complex, and dealing with multiple claims can be difficult to juggle if you haven't done it before. If you need any help or simply want this explained further, we're happy to make ourselves available to you. Choose a law firm with a team of competent attorneys who have sufficient experience handling truck accident cases. Call us at (855) 326-0000 today.
Related Articles for Further Reading:
- Understanding the Opposition in a Truck Accident Case
- Are Trucking Companies Required to Compensate Families After a Fatal Accident?
- After a Fatal Truck Accident, Which Family Members Can File Suit?