Wrongful Death Car Accident Settlements and Who Benefits

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Wrongful death car accident settlements may provide financial compensation. What is a wrongful death car accident settlement? Who can receive one?

The Schiller & Hamilton wrongful death attorneys explain fatal car accident settlements and who benefits in a wrongful death claim.

Wrongful Death Car Accident Settlements and Beneficiaries

A wrongful death car accident settlement is compensation paid by the responsible party when a car accident results in a death. Despite the death of the victim, the legal claim persists. It passes to close family members who may claim payment for the death of their loved one. Claims are often paid through insurance policies.

Beneficiaries of a wrongful death claim depend on what family survives the victim. The closest relatives – wife, husband and children – have the first right to benefit from a wrongful death settlement.

Deadliest Types of Car Accidents

According to the World Health Organization, car accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 5-29, worldwide. The CDC reports that the United States has the highest rate of traffic deaths among high-income countries. In the United States, car accidents are the leading cause of death for people ages 1-54.

Types of car accidents resulting in wrongful death include:

  • Speeding: The National Safety Council reports that speeding is a factor in 29% of traffic fatalities.
  • Distracted driving: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that distracted driving claimed an estimated 3,522 lives in 2021. It is a factor in 8% of traffic fatalities.
  • Drunk driving: When a person is drunk driving, impaired or driving under the influence of drugs, their ability to drive is compromised. The results are often fatal.
  • Side impact: Side impact, or T-bone collisions, are often deadly because the point of impact is where the passenger is the least protected.
  • Right of way violations: Right of way violations include improper lane change, turning without the right of way, running a red light or disobeying a stop sign.
  • Trucks and heavy equipment: Because of their size, heavy vehicles generate large amounts of force in an accident.
  • No seatbelt: A car accident is more likely to result in death when a person is not wearing their seatbelt. In addition, a child not sitting in a car seat, or sitting in the wrong car seat for their size, or a child not seated in the back seat of the vehicle, may be more likely to sustain fatal injuries.

Which Family Members Can File for a Wrongful Death Car Accident

Which family members can file for a wrongful death car accident depends on who survives the victim.

The spouse and children can always file. If the victim has no spouse or children, the claim extends to other close family members.

When does a family have a wrongful death claim?

S.C. Code § 15-51-10 et. seq. is the South Carolina wrongful death law. To have a wrongful death claim, there must be:

  • Death of a person
  • A wrongful act, neglect or fault of another
  • That causes the death
  • Which would have created a personal injury claim, if death had not occurred

Negligence and other standards of personal injury responsibility remain the same. The defendant is liable in damages, notwithstanding the death of the victim. However, damages are different. Family members may claim damages proportioned to the injury resulting from the death.

Who the beneficiaries are, and what shares of compensation each beneficiary takes, depends on what family members survive the victim.

Who benefits from a wrongful death settlement in South Carolina?

  • Spouse, but no children: Spouse 100%
  • Children, but no spouse: Children 100%, equally divided
  • Spouse and children: Spouse 50%, children 50%, equally divided
  • No spouse or children: Parents, equally
  • No spouse, children or parents: Siblings equally
  • None of the above: Grandparents, 50% to paternal/material (See S.C. Code § 62-2-103(5) for a full discussion of grandparent/great-grandparent distribution).

Amounts recovered are divided among parties as though the victim had died intestate. There is an exception for a parent who did not provide for a child during their period of minority, but this is uncommon. (See S.C. Code § 62-2-101, et. seq.).


  • In South Carolina, live-in partners and lifetime friends cannot claim for wrongful death.
  • Claims are brought by or brought in the name of the victim’s executor or administrator.
  • Exemplary damages may be awarded.
  • If a child is deceased, distribution is by representation or per stirpes to grandchildren.

Car Accident Is a Criminal Matter – How Does That Affect Wrongful Death?

Sometimes, a wrongful death from a car accident is also a criminal matter. For example, a person may be charged with drunk driving or reckless driving. A criminal matter may affect a wrongful death claim. How much it impacts the wrongful death claim depends on several factors.

If the defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty under North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970), it may mean an automatic finding of liability in the civil wrongful death claim. (See Zurcher v. Bilton, 379 S.C. 132 (2008), which involved a physical assault. The defendant’s Alford plea was a constitutional admission of guilt, precluding the defendant from denying liability in a subsequent civil claim.)

Issue preclusion, also called collateral estoppel, may prevent the defendant from contesting liability. The question is whether they litigated the issue to a valid and final judgment, with a full and fair opportunity to contest their liability. See Doe v. Doe, 346 S.C. 145,148 (2001).

However, a nolo contendere plea is not admissible in a subsequent civil proceeding (See Rule 410(2), Kibler v. State, 267 S.C. 250 (1976)). S.C. Code § 17-23-40 allows a no contest plea in misdemeanor cases only and with the consent of the court.

There are other ways that criminal charges may impact a civil claim, including police involvement in an investigation, which can help build evidence and witness testimony. It can also impact the case timeline.

However, restitution in a criminal claim is limited. A criminal claim is wholly inadequate to pay damages to survivors.

Talk to a Fatal Car Accident Lawyer

Schiller & Hamilton represent families in wrongful death car accident settlements. To learn if you can benefit and start your case, contact us now.

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