Why do some relatives of a wrongful death victim who died in a car crash receive large verdicts? A number of factors contribute to substantial verdicts, including the age of the survivors, the number of family members who died in the collision, and the incomes that those family members were earning before they died. State laws also have an impact on verdicts, since states define recoverable compensation in different ways. Some states place a limit on certain kinds of compensation that can be awarded for wrongful death.
The largest verdicts for wrongful death car accident cases tend to be brought against trucking companies and other businesses that maintain substantial insurance coverage. Cases in which insurance coverage is inadequate usually settle without going to trial.
Here are five wrongful death cases from around the country that involve motor vehicle crashes. They illustrate the different situations that give rise to large wrongful death verdicts in car accident cases.
$150M – Southern California
A truck driver parked illegally on the shoulder of Interstate 210 so he could get some sleep. The situation was made more dangerous by his failure to turn on his parking lights or to place reflective warning signs behind his truck. Shortly before dawn, a driver from Riverside, taking his family to Oregon on vacation, struck debris in the road and pulled onto the shoulder to make an emergency stop. The driver crashed into the rear of the truck, setting his SUV ablaze after it became lodged underneath the big rig.
Two children, ages 9 and 11, escaped from the SUV, but watched in horror as their parents and older brother burned to death. The 11-year-old committed suicide on his mother's birthday before the trial began. Four years after the 2009 crash, a Los Angeles jury awarded the surviving girl more than $150 million dollars. Most of that verdict was for the wrongful death of her family members.
$4.6 Million – Nebraska
Another illegally parked truck contributed to the death of a woman on I-80 in Nebraska. The woman, her husband, and their four children were driving their motor home to Yellowstone National Park when they were rammed from behind by a speeding tractor-trailer. The crash forced the motor home onto the shoulder, where it collided with another tractor-trailer that had parked on the shoulder near an exit ramp. The woman was pinned and died when the motor home exploded.
The surviving family members could not sue the company that owned the truck involved in the initial collision because the truck had been stolen. A federal judge initially dismissed the lawsuit against the owner of the illegally parked truck, but that dismissal was reversed on appeal. A jury then awarded $4.6 million to the woman's husband and children for her wrongful death.
$90 Million – Maryland
A 13-year-old girl was crossing the road to catch a school bus when she was struck by a Lincoln Continental that also crashed into a minivan and collided with a 17-year-old boy. The girl was forced to cross the street because the school bus driver made a habit of failing to stop at the girl's bus stop.
A wrongful death lawsuit alleged that the school district tried to save money by eliminating more than 2,000 bus stops, endangering children by forcing them to cross busy streets or to walk unsafe distances to reach their schools. A jury agreed, awarding the girl's family $90 million for her wrongful death.
$8.2 Million – Virginia
The driver of a cement mixer loaded with 36,000 pounds of cement decided to save time by taking a curvy mountain road rather than traveling farther to drive on straighter, safer highways. He took a curve too fast and lost control. When the cement mixer overturned, it crushed the Honda that a 25-year-old woman and her husband were driving to work. The woman died of a skull fracture after eight days in intensive care.
A jury awarded $1 million to each of the woman's parents. The woman's husband (who received more than $2 million for his own personal injuries) was awarded $6.2 million for his wife's wrongful death. The jury's assessment of damages was probably influenced by the driver's attempt to blame someone else for the accident, despite his earlier guilty plea to a charge of involuntary manslaughter, and by his history of traffic violations.
$58.5 Million – New Mexico
A trucking company's failure to train a driver adequately, as well as the company's record of safety violations, contributed to a $58.5 million verdict in Santa Fe. The accident victim was killed when the tanker trailer turned in front of the victim's pickup truck. The victim, who had no time to stop before colliding with the tanker trailer, was survived by a wife and five children.
Most of the verdict ($47 million) was awarded as punitive damages, an award that was designed to punish the trucking company for its egregious behavior. The jurors took the unusual step of releasing a statement expressing their belief that the trucking industry should be held to a high standard of safety.