Legal Actions Following a Wrongful Death: An Overview

November 4, 2019

It is everyone’s worst nightmare – A loved is killed in a motor vehicle accident. In addition to dealing with one’s own emotions, which is difficult enough, there may be a host of other trying circumstances. Help in navigating the complicated and confusing labyrinth of a wrongful death can start here. But ultimately, legal advice from an experienced attorney will almost certainly be necessary.

Wrongful Deaths from Car Accidents in Georgia

Most wrongful deaths originate from a motor vehicle accident.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, more than 1,100 people are killed annually on Georgia’s roadways. Despite all of the advances in vehicle safety such as seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, airbags, automatic emergency braking, etc., motor vehicle accidents continue to be a significant societal problem. The vast majority of fatality crashes are due to unsafe driving behaviors including distracted driving, impairment, or driving too fast for conditions.

The death of a loved one following a car accident or truck accident is an unfortunate shock to the victim’s family members. No one is afforded the luxury of time to prepare. That shock can paralyze a person emotionally all while having to deal with many practical problems associated with a loved one’s absence.

Even in situations where the deceased was a wealthy person, that may not help the surviving family members. Accessing the deceased person’s money will not happen immediately. It takes time for surviving family members to have the legal right to access those funds. And in the event the deceased was not wealthy, there may not be any money to access. The burden may then shift to the family to pay the ambulance bill, the hospital bill (if the person did not succumb to his injuries instantly), and burial costs.

Under Georgia law, a person’s death due to the negligence of another will lead to the rise of two claims: The wrongful death claim and the estate claim. Each claim is distinctively different.

Wrongful Death Claims

The Georgia Wrongful Death Act strictly vests ownership of a death claim in a particular sequence of people. In other words, the statute dictates who holds the claim for wrongful death. In order, those people are as follows:

  1. Surviving spouse of the deceased
  2. If there is no surviving spouse, the child (or children) of the deceased
  3. If the deceased did not have a spouse or any children, then the parent(s) of the deceased

The statute does not care who was in fact closest to the deceased, who the deceased most loved, who is most “deserving” of financially benefiting from the individual’s death, or what is a fair outcome. In fact, even in those instances when spouses are in the midst of divorcing Georgia law nevertheless requires that the surviving spouse holds the claim for wrongful death.

During our attorneys’ 30+ years in practice, we have seen situations where the spouses have been estranged for many years yet they never filed the paperwork formally divorcing. In that instance, the estranged spouse is still the holder of the wrongful death claim.

A wrongful death claim allows for the recovery of the “full value of the life of the decedent.” What does that mean? What goes into calculating the full value of a person’s life?

In short, there is an economic component and a non-economic component.

Economic Component of Wrongful Death Claim

The economic component of the person’s worth is cold and heartless. In effect, it analyzes a person’s economic worth, not whether the deceased was a good person or positively contributed to society. A heart surgeon is going to have a larger economic component to his wrongful death claim than someone who worked making minimum wage.

Non-Economic Component of Wrongful Death Claim

The non-economic component of the wrongful death claim is determined by analyzing a person’s “intangible” aspect of life. Truthfully, there are an infinite number of factors which will go into this analysis. For instance, someone who was elderly, single, and without any dependents is going to have a smaller non-economic value of her claim than a person in her 20s who was caring for several young children.

No recovery under the wrongful death claim is subject to any debt or liability of the decedent. Stated another way, even if the decedent was in debt or has outstanding medical bills related to his death, the person holding the wrongful death claim does not have to pay any of those bills. Whatever is paid by the defendant goes to the holder of the wrongful death claim without any offset for the decedent’s debts, including taxes.

Estate Claims

The second claim which arises following a person’s death concerns his/her estate. The estate claim is separate and apart from the statutory wrongful death claim discussed above.
For starters, anyone can bring the estate claim. The key is that the person must be appointed by a probate court in the county where the decedent resided at the time of his death. Whoever is ultimately appointed by the probate court is known as the estate’s personal representative. Any money recovered by the personal representative is for the benefit of the next of kin.

The estate holds any claim for pre-death medical bills and funeral expenses. Any property damages are also recoverable by the estate. In addition, in the event there is a “survivor’s claim”, it too is vested with the estate.

Survivor’s Claim

A survivor’s claim simply means that if a decedent dies with an existing personal injury claim, that claim can survive his or her death and be pursued by the estate. For example, if a claimant is injured and survives for some period of time before dying, then the injury claim and the claim for any pain and suffering incurred before death would be part of the estate claim.

Pre-Impact Fright Damages

Georgia also allows recovery for what are known as “pre-impact fright damages.” Pre-impact fright damages are awarded to a claimant to compensate him for his fright in realizing that he was about to have a fatal accident. If there is evidence the decedent was aware of his impending death, then damages may be recovered.

Punitive Damages

Finally, in appropriate circumstances, a punitive damages claim may exist which relates to the estate claim. Punitive damages are not able to be recovered in a wrongful death claim but the claim may be included in the estate claim.

Despite the explanation provided here, it is nevertheless not easy to distinguish between a wrongful death claim and an estate claim. The table below summarizes the differences:

wrongful death claim priority explanation

Handling death claims are complicated, even for attorneys who handle personal injury claims as a career choice. There is no way this blog could possibly discuss or explain every possible scenario  confronting you or your family.

It is not easy to know the right steps following an accident which involves the death of a loved one. We’re here to help. Please get in touch with an HPS attorney by calling (404) 400-1175 or via our contact form.

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