Alabama Wrongful Death Cases: What to Know When a Loved One Dies

Accidents are never pleasant. But at their worst, accidents injure people and even take their lives. Sadly, these lives lost to a driver’s negligence are a common occurrence in Alabama and throughout the nation.

If a negligent driver kills your loved one in a car accident, you have legal options. This post explains some important things to know about Alabama wrongful death cases.

Alabama wrongful death

Fatal Car Accidents in Alabama

Regrettably, fatal car accidents are common in Alabama. According to the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), in 2020, there were 932 fatal crashes in Alabama. These numbers mean that in Alabama, someone dies in a car accident, trucking accident, or other crash every nine hours. Unfortunately, ALDOT also reports that these statistics place Alabama well above the national average for fatal crashes.

The ALDOT report also tells us about the most common causes of fatal car accidents. In 2020, the most common reasons for crashes were driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding, aggressive driving, and driving under the influence/driving while intoxicated.

What is a wrongful death claim?

Before answering this question, we should talk about how things work in a standard personal injury case with no fatal injuries.

In the average Alabama personal injury claim, the plaintiff – the person who was injured in the car crash or trucking accident – files a complaint with the court. The complaint is an official document that outlines why the plaintiff thinks that the defendant – the person who hit them – was responsible for their injuries. In such a case, the plaintiff can ask the court to award damages for many things, including

Medical bills,
Lost wages,
Property damage, and
Pain and suffering.

An Alabama wrongful death claim, on the other hand, is not focused on the harm suffered by the plaintiff. Instead, Alabama’s wrongful death law focuses on the conduct of the defendant. In other words, in Alabama, a wrongful death lawsuit does not consider any of the plaintiff’s losses. You will not be allowed to pursue any claims related to their financial losses, pain and suffering, or property damage even if those losses are considerable. In an Alabama wrongful death case, the only damages available are punitive damages.

What are punitive damages?

Like all other states, Alabama recognizes two main types of damages. The first is “compensatory damages.” As the name implies, these damages exist to compensate the plaintiff for their losses. Damages for pain and suffering, property damages, and medical bills are all compensatory damages.

The second type of damages encountered in Alabama personal injury cases is “punitive damages.” If you think “punitive” sounds like “punish,” you’re right. These damages are awarded without looking at the damage to the plaintiff. Instead, the jury looks at evidence of the defendant’s behavior. In fact, Alabama law says that a wrongful death suit must be based on another person’s “wrongful act, omission, or negligence.” But in general, punitive damages are awarded when a driver’s behavior is truly shocking.

For example, assume that drivers A and B both cause fatal car accidents. If driver A was driving perfectly and only caused the crash to avoid hitting a pedestrian, driver A was probably not negligent or reckless. Punitive damages may not be awarded. However, if driver B caused the accident while speeding and intoxicated, punitive damages are far more likely.

Is there a way to recover damages for my loved one’s financial injuries?

The answer here is, “Maybe.” If your loved one filed an Alabama personal injury lawsuit before they passed away, Alabama law says that the claim “survives” the person’s death. The survivorship rule means that the court will allow you or other family members to carry on the case even though your loved one has died. You can use such a personal injury suit to recover damages for the financial and other injuries listed above.

However, if your loved one did not file a personal injury claim before they passed away, Alabama law will not allow you to continue their claim. You will be limited to punitive damages – which may or may not provide full compensation for your family’s financial losses.

This rule – which is unique to Alabama – is a very good reason to contact a Birmingham personal injury attorney as soon as possible after your accident.

How do I file an Alabama wrongful death claim?

In addition to the punitive damages rule, another unique thing about Alabama wrongful death cases is who can file them. According to Alabama law, only a personal representative can file a wrongful death claim.

Determining who can serve as a personal representative depends on the age of the person who passed away. If the person was 19 or younger, the child’s mother or father can file a wrongful death claim within six months. But if they do not file within six months, any appointed personal representative can file it.

If the person was over 19 at the time of the fatal accident, Alabama first looks at whether the person has named a personal representative in their will. If they have not, Alabama courts use complicated priority rules to determine who should have priority as personal representative. Making things more complicated, any adult over 19 of sound mind without a serious criminal record can petition the court to serve as personal representative.

It’s best to see an Alabama personal injury lawyer as soon as possible to help you with the personal representative process.

When should I see an Alabama personal injury attorney about a wrongful death claim?

If you’ve been injured in a car accident, visit a Birmingham personal injury attorney as soon as possible after your accident. DO NOT WAIT.

As noted above, if your loved one survives the accident, they can file a claim for compensatory damages like pain and suffering, medical expenses, and property damage. If you don’t see an Alabama personal injury attorney immediately after the accident, these claims may be lost forever.

Also, the statute of limitations for Alabama personal injury claims – including wrongful death claims – is two years. However, there are shorter time limits for claims against municipalities. There are also legal timelines that govern the personal representative process. If you don’t see an attorney soon, you could miss important deadlines and damage – or destroy – your wrongful death case in the process.

How are damages distributed in an Alabama wrongful death case?

In Alabama, damages in wrongful death lawsuits are handled in a unique way. Alabama uses the laws of intestate succession – a legal term for the rules courts use when a person dies without a will – to determine how damages in a wrongful death claim will be awarded to the surviving family. It’s important to note that these rules apply even if your loved one had a valid will at the time they passed away.

Alabama’s rules regarding the distribution of property without a will are complex and complicated. Your family should see an Alabama personal injury lawyer as soon as possible to determine how any damages from the wrongful death lawsuit will be split among surviving family members.

Do you need help with an Alabama wrongful death case?

If you need help with an Alabama wrongful death case, we hope that this post answered many of your questions. If you still have questions or you would like to file a wrongful death case, please contact Collins Law, LLC. The firm is consistently ranked as one of the best Birmingham personal injury law firms. Our team will show you compassion as we work to get you the compensation you deserve. You can schedule a free, no-obligation car accident consultation by using this link or calling 205-588-1411. We’re ready to help you!