Riding on a motorcycle can be a thrilling experience. Along with that thrill, however, comes some serious risk. Motorcycle drivers are more susceptible to the dangers of inclement weather and adverse road conditions than drivers in closed, four-wheeled vehicles. Additionally, they are more prone to ending up in other driver’s blind spots, making it harder to see them when merging in traffic.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, a trusted source of data-driven insights on insurance, there were more than 5,500 motorcycle fatalities in 2020 and more than 83,000 injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that motorcyclists are about 28 times more likely to die in an accident than victims of closed-vehicle accidents.
Trying to grapple with the grief of losing someone you love to a motorcycle fatality while also reckoning with the financial cost can be overwhelming. If another party is liable for the fatality, filing a wrongful death lawsuit against them can help ease some of the financial burdens in the aftermath of the accident.
How Long Does a Family Have to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A statute of limitations is a law that prohibits claims if a certain amount of time has passed after an injury. The statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death lawsuit differs in each state. However, in all states, people have at least one year to file unless the entity being sued is a government agency, in which case the statute of limitations is likely to be much shorter. In the case of a wrongful death motorcycle accident, the statute of limitations would follow standard state guidelines unless the death occurs well after the accident but is still deemed to be a direct result of the accident. In this case, more time could be granted. Again, the timeline will vary from state to state. As such, it is important to seek prompt legal advice. The timeframe for a statute of limitations applies when a claim is filed, not when it has been completed.
What is the Difference Between Survival Action and Wrongful Death?
A wrongful death lawsuit occurs when surviving family members or dependents of the deceased charge another party with the death and seek damages to compensate for emotional suffering and the loss of financial support. Here are some factors that a judge or jury might take into consideration when determining how much to award in damages:
Pain and suffering (physical and emotional)
Loss of companionship
Deceased’s prior income
Deceased’s predicted future income
Surviving parties’ prior level of dependency on deceased
Funeral and burial costs
In some cases, punitive damages may also be awarded if it is determined that the party responsible for the death knowingly or intentionally caused the injuries that led to the decedent’s passing. If criminal charges have also been brought against the defendant, and the charged party is found to be not guilty, surviving parties may still be awarded damages in a wrongful death suit.
Survival action is taken to recover damages on behalf of the deceased, as opposed to the surviving dependents of the deceased. Depending on whether they died instantly or well after their injury occurred, survival action damages might be awarded for the decedent’s pain and suffering, as well as for loss of income due to injury, from the time of the accident up to the time of their death.
How to Start a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Once you are ready to file a wrongful death lawsuit, you should consult a qualified attorney to evaluate your case and discuss the next steps. Those next steps will include determining who is eligible to file a suit, going through the discovery process, interviewing witnesses, and making a case to prove the defendant’s liability.
Determining who is qualified to file a wrongful death lawsuit
Before bringing up charges in a wrongful death lawsuit, work with your attorney to decide who should be filing the suit. The laws around who can file a wrongful death claim vary from state to state. In many states, the deceased’s surviving family (spouse, siblings, parents, children, and other relatives) can file a lawsuit. In some states, however, the only person authorized to file a wrongful death lawsuit will be the executor of the decedent’s estate.
Filing a Complaint
Once you have determined who can file the lawsuit and confirmed that the statute of limitations for the claim has not run out, the first step will be to file a complaint (aka petition) with the courts. A strong complaint will do the following:
Identify all parties involved
Provide a legal basis for the court’s jurisdiction over the case
Outline the details of the case against the defendant
Lay out the demands for judgment/relief
The objective of the complaint is to make the defendant aware of the plaintiff’s factual and legal claims.
Filing a Summons
After the complaint has been filed, the plaintiff will need to file a summons, a court document telling the defendant that a wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against them, and let them know where the lawsuit will be heard. Failure to respond to a summons puts the defendant at risk of automatically losing their case.
Once all the necessary paperwork has been completed to file a wrongful death lawsuit, the complaint, summons, and other relevant documents will be delivered to the defendant through a legal practice referred to as “service of process.”
Going through the discovery process to prepare for trial
In preparation for any wrongful death lawsuit, both sides will need to go through what is known as the discovery process. During this time, injury laws will be researched, claims will be investigated, and witnesses and experts may be interviewed. Whether or not a wrongful death lawsuit goes to trial depends largely on what is uncovered during the discovery process. The information directly impacts whether or not a settlement between the two parties can be reached during mediation.
In a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. This means it will be up to the plaintiff’s attorney to prove that claims against the defendant are factual. They will do so by demonstrating that the following four factors apply to the accident:
Negligence - The decedent’s death was caused, at least in part, by negligent or reckless action on the part of the defendant.
Breach of Duty - The defendant breached a legal duty or failed to act with the same level of care that others in the same circumstances would use, thus failing to keep the decedent from being harmed/killed.
Causation - The defendant’s negligence was responsible for causing the death of the plaintiff’s relative.
Damages - The plaintiff has incurred one or more legitimate and quantifiable damage due to the defendant’s negligence. These will need to be demonstrated in order to prove that the defendant is financially responsible for meeting the plaintiff’s prayer for relief.
Collecting payment after a settlement
Once a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit has been reached through mediation, or once a court has ordered that a certain amount of damages be paid, the at-fault party or their insurance company will pay out the damages. Damages may be paid in a one-time lump sum. Or they may be dispersed over time through a structured settlement. A structured settlement would be more likely in cases where the at-fault party does not have insurance to cover their liability and may be dispersed over months or years. In a wrongful death settlement, no estate, income, or inheritance taxes must be paid on the damages received.
How Long Does a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Take?
Anyone hoping to receive compensation for the wrongful death of a loved one will likely want to reach a resolution and put the painful circumstances behind them as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there is no set timeline in these matters, nor is there any guarantee that a settlement will be reached quickly. Each wrongful death lawsuit has its own unique set of circumstances and may take months or even years to resolve.
Here are some of the factors that may play a part in how long it takes:
It may take some time to gather the appropriate evidence to support the plaintiff's claims.
An insurance company may refuse to pay the suggested amount, in which case the plaintiff and defendant would then try to reach a settlement on their own.
If a settlement cannot be reached, the case will go to trial. This can be time-consuming.
Once a case has been settled or concluded, it may take several more weeks to finalize everything.
Resources for Family Members of Motorcycle Accident Victims
Grieving the loss of a loved one is never easy. You don’t have to take the next steps alone. There are online resources available to everyone that can help you find the grief support and legal aid you may need.
Grieving.com is one of the oldest grief support communities on the internet. They serve over 250k people annually from more than 100 different countries and from all walks of life. Their goal is to provide grief support through community fellowship and interaction. There are some helpful and personal discussions happening in the forums found on this site.
Founded over 50 years ago, The Compassionate Friends is a non-profit organization that offers personal comfort, hope, support, friendship, and understanding to bereaved families that have experienced the death of a child. They offer their support via local chapter meetings, virtual chapter meetings, and online communities. They have over 600 chapters in all 50 states and Washington D.C. Their National office is located in Wixom, MI - Phone:(877) 969 - 0010
The American Bar Association Free Legal Answers is a virtual legal advice clinic that provides an online version of the walk-in clinic model. Users may request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer by posting their civil legal questions to their state’s website. Lawyers will then follow up with basic legal advice and information, with no expectation of long-term representation. If you require advice and information about non-criminal legal matters but cannot afford the services of a lawyer, this is an excellent resource for you.
You can contact the ABA through the ABA Service Center Hotline at (800) 285-2221 or email them at Service@americanbar.org, Monday - Friday, 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM ET.
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