Whiletruck accidents are less common in Vermont than crashes involving only passenger vehicles, a truck accident is often more likely to result in the death of innocent persons. Consider that a fully loaded semi-truck can legally weigh as much as 80,000 pounds, and you realize the average car does not stand a chance in the event of a collision. And in many of these accidents it is negligence on the part of the truck driver that played a critical role in the accident.
The surviving victims of a truck accident can file a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages against the individuals and parties responsible for the semi-truck. But what about those victims who do not survive? Under Vermont law, the estate of the deceased victim may file a special type of personal injury lawsuit known as a wrongful death claim. Although many of the same principles apply to wrongful death and other personal injury cases, there are some critical differences that you need to understand.
What Is a “Wrongful Death”?
UnderVermont law, any person or legal entity may be sued for causing the death of another person by “wrongful act, neglect, or default.” A wrongful death action essentially takes the place of the personal injury lawsuit that the victim could have filed had they survived the truck accident. Some common examples of wrongful death in truck accidents include:
- Truck Driver Negligence: All truck drivers must follow the rules of the road, especially when operating their vehicles under Vermont’s often less-than-ideal road conditions. A truck driver who causes a fatal accident by ignoring basic and traffic safety laws is subject to a wrongful death claim.
- Truck Driver Fatigue: A fatal truck accident can also result from an inattentive driver who is simply too tired to pay attention to the road. Federal regulations govern the “hours of service” that a truck driver can remain behind the wheel without taking a break or resting. Ignoring these rules and “pushing through” to meet a delivery schedule is just as negligent as ignoring traffic laws.
- Criminal Behavior: Obviously, if a truck driver intentionally causes a fatal accident, that can also form the basis for a wrongful death claim. But a more common scenario is a driver operating their truck while intoxicated or otherwise impaired behind the wheel. In Vermont, the operator of a commercial vehicle is considered legally drunk if their blood alcohol concentration is just 0.04 percent, which is half the legal limit for adult drivers of passenger vehicles.
- Improper Maintenance: Truck owners and trucking companies must meet certain minimum safety standards with respect to their vehicles. If a truck is not regularly inspected and maintained, a critical part may fail while the trucker is on the road and lead to an accident. If anyone dies in such an accident, the truck company, truck manufacturer, or even the company responsible for producing a specific part may be subject to a wrongful death claim.
- Improper Loading: Negligence in the loading and handling of a truck’s cargo can also cause a fatal accident. For example, if cargo is not properly strapped down, it may become loose during transport and effectively become a projectile that strikes another vehicle on the road. As with improper maintenance, there may be multiple parties liable in a wrongful death claim arising from this kind of accident.
One thing to keep in mind is that if a fatal truck accident was the result of DUI or another criminal act, the right of the victim’s estate to file a wrongful death lawsuit is independent of whether the state brings criminal charges against the same defendants. Wrongful death is a purely civil matter. An estate can therefore win and recover damages in a wrongful death case even if no person is ever charged with a crime in connection with the same truck accident. This is because the burden of proof is lower in a wrongful death case than in a criminal homicide prosecution.
Who Recovers Compensation in a Vermont Wrongful Death Case?
Since there is no living victim to receive compensation following a fatal truck accident, a wrongful death claim instead focuses on recovering damages for the victim’s family. If the victim had a surviving spouse but no children, then any damages recovered go to the spouse. If the victim had a spouse and children or other descendants, then damages are divided between them.
The actual compensation for a Vermont wrongful death case will depend on a number of factors. But some of the more common types of damages awarded following a fatal truck accident include:
- Economic Damages: The surviving family members are entitled to compensation for the estimated value of the victim’s future earnings from their job or profession.
- Non-Economic Services: The survivors may also receive compensation for the loss of the victim’s love, society, companionship, and overall support that cannot be readily quantified.
- Final Expenses: An award of damages may also cover the costs of the victim’s final medical care, funeral, and burial, as well as the expenses of administering their estate.
If a fatal truck accident occurs in the course of the victim’s employment, any surviving spouse or minor children can also receive death benefits under Vermont workers’ compensation law. Since workers’ compensation is a “no fault” system, it is not necessary to prove negligence to recover such benefits. But workers’ compensation does not cover certain types of damages that may be available in a wrongful death claim, such as compensation for the loss of non-economic services.
Speak with a Vermont Truck Accident Attorney Today
The legal fallout from a fatal truck accident is often complex and overwhelming for families still dealing with their immediate grief. That is why if you have recently lost a loved one in an accident involving a commercial truck, it is best to seek out qualified legal advice regarding your right to compensation. If you would like to speak with aVermont truck accident attorney, call Larson & Gallivan Law at 802-327-8458 today to schedule a free initial consultation.