Process After Somebody Is Killed in a Car Accident

Written by Steven Matz on . Posted in , .

There is a traffic accident roughly every two minutes in Michigan. While most (81%) traffic accidents result in only property damage, there are many serious and even fatal accidents. In 2021, the fatality rate was 1.17 deaths per 100 million miles of travel.

Because there is a real risk of a fatality after a traffic accident, you need to understand your rights if a loved one loses their life because of a car accident. Unfortunately, if you do not take quick action, you risk losing essential legal benefits for you and your family.

Losing a loved one suddenly in a car accident is devastating. You may wonder: What happens when someone is killed in a car accident?

Let Matz Injury Law fight for you and your family’s legal rights after a fatal car accident. We focus on legal matters so that you can focus on everything else.

What Is the Process When Somebody Is Killed in a Car Accident?

Things to Know About Car Accident Deaths in Michigan

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) projected that 42,915 people died in traffic accidents in 2021. This number is a 16-year high and a 10.5% increase from 2020.

In Michigan, there were 1,131 people killed in car accidents in 2021. There were 282,640 total reported crashes and 1,068 fatal crashes. Of all fatal crashes, roughly 31.5% involved alcohol in some way, whether it was a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist. In about 11% of car accidents, both drinking and drugs were involved.

Based on 2021 statistics, 10,050,811 people live in Michigan. One in every 8,887 people passed away in a traffic crash, and one out of 141 suffered a personal injury. One person passes away in a fatal car accident every eight hours.

What Happens After a Fatal Car Accident in Michigan?

If there are any injuries after a car accident, those involved in the crash or bystanders should call 911 to reach emergency medical services. Calling 911 will serve as the first action to report the accident, which Michigan law requires.

Calling 911 will prompt several other responses from authorities as well.

First Responders Arrive on the Scene

Calling 911 will trigger the services of several emergency responders, including:

  • Police
  • Fire department
  • Ambulance (with emergency medical technicians and paramedics)

Each of these emergency responders has special training to address trauma. They can perform life-saving measures, provide medication, and transport anyone seriously injured to the hospital.

Any emergency responder, from EMTs to police officers, has strict protocols that they must follow to assist victims after a car accident. They will perform triage to determine who is the most seriously injured and help those people first.

As part of the triage process, EMTs and paramedics will determine if anyone has passed away because of the accident. If someone has passed, they will cover that person with a white sheet and treat others nearby.

Covering the body with a sheet is mostly done to respect the person who passed. The covering provides a level of privacy as well. It allows medical staff to identify the person before others can. The last thing that family and friends want is to see a photo of their loved one who has passed on social media before they speak to the authorities.

First responders also use the white sheet to preserve the scene until the coroner arrives. The coroner is almost always called to the scene when someone dies in a car accident. The coroner will examine and document the crash scene and determine the cause of death.

Police File Criminal Charges

Michigan does not have a vehicular homicide statute. In many other states, this type of law would impose criminal charges on someone who killed another person because of careless or reckless driving. These criminal laws are specific to fatalities following a car crash.

Nonetheless, the driver might still face criminal charges under Michigan’s more general homicide laws. When a police report reflects that a drunk driver was involved, charges are much more likely to be filed against the at-fault driver.

When Does a Driver Face Criminal Charges in a Wrongful Death?

The district attorney will determine whether to charge a driver after a wrongful death accident and which charge to assert.

Wrongful death cases in Michigan will usually fall under manslaughter or second-degree murder. If there was alcohol involved, then Michigan’s enhanced penalties for reckless driving and operating while intoxicated might apply.

Manslaughter

A vehicular manslaughter charge in Michigan might occur because a driver killed another person while driving in a grossly negligent manner. Gross negligence occurs when a driver knowingly does something or fails to do something that leads to an accident. Traveling at high speeds is often a good example of gross negligence that might lead to a manslaughter charge.

Second-Degree Murder

A second-degree murder charge varies from manslaughter because the driver knowingly created a “very high risk” of death or serious bodily harm. The more outrageous the action that led to the accident, the more likely the DA will charge the driver with second-degree murder. Severe drunk driving cases, for example, might trigger a second-degree murder charge.

What Benefits Am I Entitled to as a Surviving Family Member?

The police and district attorney will handle the criminal aspects of your case. However, they have very little to do with the civil case.
As a surviving spouse or surviving family member, you are responsible for taking action in a civil lawsuit to request money damages to cover things like:

  • Medical bills
  • Loss of income
  • Loss of consortium
  • Funeral costs or burial costs
  • Loss of services

Michigan has two main benefit options available to surviving family members. A car accident lawyer will help you determine which one of these (or both) might be available to you and your family.

Survivor’s Loss Benefits

Michigan has a no-fault personal protection insurance benefit called survivor’s loss benefits for family members who lost a loved one in a car accident. This insurance coverage provides benefits if someone is killed in an auto accident. It replaces the “contribution of tangible things of economic value” that the deceased individual would have contributed to the household had they survived the accident.

Essentially, the insurance company will provide replacement funds for the contribution that the deceased loved one would have provided had they not passed away. These benefits are available for the first three years after the accident date. They also have maximum payments per month that are based on their insurance policy.

Surviving family members can use these benefits however they would like, from paying medical expenses to keeping up with normal household expenses.

Wrongful Death Claim

A wrongful death lawsuit is a legal action asserted by the surviving spouse or another surviving family member against the person who caused the death. While wrongful death claims can arise in a variety of circumstances, they are common after a fatal car accident.

As part of the wrongful death lawsuit, the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate will assert the legal claim.

Family members can file this type of claim even if the person who caused the accident does not have insurance coverage. In those situations, the family might also have an uninsured motorist claim as well.

Filing for Survivors’ Benefits: Who Is Eligible?

According to Michigan law, only dependents of the deceased can receive survivors’ benefits. Any of the following individuals are presumed to be dependents.

  • Current spouse (as long as they lived with the spouse at the time of death)
  • Children under the age of 18 years old, or the child is over the age of 18 but physically or mentally incapacitated from earning wages and is dependent on the parent

If a family member does not fall into one of these two categories, then they must show that they are actually dependent on the person who passed.

Filing for Survivors’ Benefits

Eligible dependents must submit a claim for survivors’ benefits through their insurance company, often directly to an insurance adjuster. The dependents will generally be required to provide the following documents to support their claim.

  • Death certificate
  • Funeral bill
  • Evidence of financial loss (such as tax returns or income statements)

Although applying for survivors’ benefits may seem straightforward, it can be complicated. It is also difficult to navigate because surviving relatives must address this issue while they are grieving for their loved one. Having a Michigan personal injury lawyer help with this process can be extremely beneficial.

How Do I File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Michigan?

Your first step after a loved one passes in a car accident is to speak with a wrongful death lawyer about your legal options. They will be able to evaluate your case and determine if you have a viable claim under Michigan law. They can also help you with all of the next steps as you work through this process.

In general, the process will require:

  • Being named a personal representative
  • Notifying other family members of their rights and obligations
  • Filing a formal complaint
  • Conducting discovery and an investigation of why the accident occurred
  • Assessing damages and engaging experts to further explain damages
  • Presenting your case to a jury
  • Obtaining a verdict

You might also be able to settle your wrongful death lawsuit at any point in this process. Most cases do not go all the way to trial because settlement is often a good result for all parties involved in the case.

Is There a Statute of Limitations in Michigan for Wrongful Death?

Yes. You must bring a claim for wrongful death within three years of the date of your loved one’s death. In addition, you usually only have one year after the date of your loved one’s passing to assert survivors’ benefits.

If you do not file your wrongful death claim within the time period set out in the statute of limitations, you will likely be barred from bringing a claim at all.

Keep in mind that the statute of limitations is the period you have to file your claim — not the period to contact a personal injury lawyer. The sooner you talk to an attorney about your situation after a fatal car accident, the better. They will be able to help you protect your rights and talk to insurance companies on your behalf after this type of serious accident.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Michigan?

Like survivors’ benefits, only certain people can assert a wrongful death claim. Specifically, only the deceased person’s personal representative can file a lawsuit. If you are considering asserting a wrongful death claim, you might need to notify other family members to make them aware of their rights in the case.

The probate court officially names a personal representative, but the family will usually agree on who this person should be. This person will represent the interests of all family members in a wrongful death case.

Your wrongful death lawyer will help you through anything you need to do in probate court and your civil case as well.

Do Not Put Yourself Through More Hardship

Losing a loved one is never easy. Traffic fatalities are sudden and irrational, which makes them even harder for loved ones to bear. However, surviving family members must still be very careful when an insurance company contacts them after a traffic accident.

Unfortunately, an insurance company might try to take advantage of surviving family members’ vulnerability during this difficult time. For example, they might fail to disclose policy limits or assets that the responsible party might have.

An insurance claims adjuster has no duty to surviving family members to warn them of the full consequences of settling a case, such as voiding underinsured motorist coverage. As a result, settling without talking to a wrongful death attorney is rarely a good idea.

For reliable legal help you can trust, contact Matz Injury Law. Our Michigan law firm will help you and your family assert your rights after a loved one passes. We will work passionately on your behalf to get you the compensation you deserve. Contact us for more information about how we can help or schedule a free consultation.

Written By Steven Matz

Steven J. Matz is a founding shareholder of Matz Injury Law. The firm’s concentration is on personal injury litigation, with an emphasis on traumatic brain injury. Mr. Matz earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with high distinction and highest honors in 1974 from the University of Michigan and a Juris Doctor degree in 1977 from The George Washington University National Law Center. Mr. Matz lectures and publishes in a number of areas, including ethics, marketing, trial tactics, and head injury. Mr. Matz has served on the Michigan Association for Justice Executive Board and currently serves the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board as a Hearing Panel Chairman and Master. He is also a member of the State Bar Committee for Character and Fitness.
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