Teen Adjudicated for Fatal Accident
A driver who was 17 at the time the crash occurred recently was sentenced to spend between seven and nine months in a juvenile facility after he caused a fatal accident while speeding. On Feb. 17, 2021, the teenager was driving his father’s Lamborghini with his girlfriend at the time. He started racing and was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour when he crashed into a vehicle that was being driven by a 32-year-old woman near the intersection of Overland Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. The collision caused the woman’s car to nearly be split in half, and she was pronounced dead at the scene.
The teenager was prosecuted in juvenile court because of his age at the time of the collision. He entered a guilty plea to vehicular manslaughter in April 2021. While the teen had requested probation, the victim’s family members argued for him to spend time in a juvenile camp. The court apparently agreed and ordered him to serve time in the county juvenile camp. While the young man will receive criminal penalties for his grossly negligent actions, the victim’s family might also want to consider other avenues to hold him and his father accountable for their actions.
Potential Civil Liability
In cases in which the negligence of a driver results in a fatal accident, the surviving family members can file a wrongful death civil lawsuit. California recognizes the rights of surviving family members to pursue wrongful death claims against people whose negligence caused their loved one’s death.
Unlike criminal matters, wrongful death claims fall under the state’s civil tort laws. The civil laws of California allow certain family members to pursue monetary damages against the people whose actions caused the deaths of their loved ones. Since wrongful death claims operate under a separate body of law than criminal matters and are prosecuted in civil court instead of criminal court, the surviving family members can file wrongful death claims even though the defendant might face criminal liability in a corresponding criminal action.
There are several reasons why the surviving family members in this and other similar cases might want to pursue a wrongful death claim against the defendant. Civil and criminal cases involve different types of penalties and have different burdens of proof. Since the penalties involved in civil lawsuits do not involve the potential of incarceration but instead include monetary damages, the burden of proof in wrongful death claims is lower than it is in criminal matters. This means that the surviving family members might be able to hold a defendant accountable for his or her conduct even if he or she is found not guilty in a criminal trial.
Because of the potential of the defendant’s loss of freedom in a criminal case, the burden of proof is always on the prosecuting attorney to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecuting attorney is unable to meet this high burden of proof, a defendant will be found not guilty. However, in a civil case, the plaintiffs’ burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence. This is a lower standard and means that they must present evidence to show that it is more likely than not to have happened in the manner they have asserted. In some cases, a defendant might be found not guilty in a criminal case but be found liable in a civil wrongful death lawsuit. The ability to file a wrongful death claim might allow the family members to hold a defendant accountable for his or her actions regardless of what might happen in the criminal case against the defendant.
In this case, another reason why the surviving family members of the 32-year-old woman might want to file a wrongful death claim is to potentially hold the teenager’s father accountable for his actions in allowing his son to drive the Lamborghini. A wrongful death lawsuit might allow the family to hold the father accountable even though he did not face criminal liability.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim?
Under Cal. Civ. Proc. § 377.60, only people with certain types of relationships to the deceased victim have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The relationships with the victim and the authority to file a lawsuit exist in the following order of priority:
- Surviving spouse or domestic partner
- People who would be entitled to the estate by intestate succession
- Legal guardian if the parents are deceased
- Dependents of the victim or of the putative spouse
- The putative spouse’s children
- Minor who has lived with the victim for at least six months before the victim’s death and was dependent on the victim for one-half or more of his or her support
- Personal representative of the estate
Negligent Entrustment and Holding the Father Liable
In this case, the teenager was driving his father’s Lamborghini and racing at speeds of more than 100 mph at the time of the accident. California recognizes a type of negligence called negligent entrustment. A person who negligently allows someone to drive his or her vehicle that the owner knows to be inexperienced, incompetent, or reckless can be held liable to pay damages when someone is subsequently injured or killed in an accident caused by the inexperienced or incompetent driver.
To prove a negligent entrustment cause of action, the plaintiff must prove the following elements:
- The driver negligently operated or drove the vehicle.
- The defendant owned the vehicle driven by the negligent driver.
- The negligent driver had the owner’s permission to drive the vehicle.
- The defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the driver was inexperienced, incompetent, or reckless.
- The defendant still allowed the driver to drive the vehicle.
- The driver’s incompetence was a substantial contributing factor to the accident and the victim’s injuries.
The family might be able to file a cause of action against the father for negligent entrustment if he gave his son permission to drive the Lamborghini despite the father’s knowledge that his son was too inexperienced to handle the vehicle, was incompetent, or was likely to engage in reckless behavior, including racing the car at excessive speeds. This might allow the surviving family members to recover more compensation than they might be able to recover by simply pursuing a claim against the teen driver who caused the collision and their loved one’s death.
Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim
Many factors determine the monetary damages that might be recoverable in a wrongful death case, including the following:
- The victim’s age and potential lifetime earnings capacity if he or she had lived
- Whether the victim contributed any fault to the accident
- The available insurance policies and their limits
- Whether the defendant has other assets that could provide sources of recovery
Compensatory damages include monetary amounts to compensate the plaintiffs for their economic and noneconomic losses. Some of the types of compensatory damages that might be available in a wrongful death case include the following:
- The amount of financial support the victim would have contributed to his or her family for his or her life expectancy or the life expectancy of the plaintiff, whichever is shorter
- The loss of benefits the plaintiff would have received from the victim
- The value of the household services the victim provided
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Loss of the victim’s companionship, support, and love
- Loss of consortium and/or guidance
In cases in which a victim survived for a period of time before succumbing to his or her injuries, the estate can bring a survival action under Cal. Code. Civ. Proc. § 377.30. The damages in a survival action are meant to compensate the estate for the benefit of the beneficiaries instead of the surviving family members, and a survival action can only be brought by the estate and not a surviving family member. In a survival action, the recoverable damages include the following:
- Medical bills incurred to treat the victim for his or her injuries from the time of the accident until his or her death
- Lost wages from the time of the accident and injuries until the victim died
- Property losses
Punitive damages are also recoverable in survival actions, but they are not available in wrongful death claims. Punitive damages are designed to punish defendants whose actions were particularly outrageous and are awarded in addition to any compensatory damages that are also awarded.
Get Help From an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney
This case illustrates exactly how dangerous speeding can be. If you have lost your loved one in an accident caused by someone who was speeding, you should talk to an experienced attorney at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC. Call us today for a free consultation at 866.966.5240.