Every minute of every day, there’s a car accident somewhere in the world and a majority of drivers will be in an accident at least once. Most of these accident, of course, are relatively minor incidents, such as fender benders, and do little more than add inconvenience to the driver’s day. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the nightmare scenario: fatalities. In the U.S., roughly 35,000 people die every year in car accidents; that’s one death approximately every 12 minutes. When fatalities result from a car accident, the consequences are far more serious.
What Happens If You Accidently Kill Someone?
Out of the dozens of traffic fatalities that occur every day, not all will lead to criminal charges. When one of the drivers is at-fault for causing the death, however, through negligent or reckless driving behaviors they could be charged with “vehicular manslaughter.” Missouri, like most other states, has vehicular manslaughter laws defining the crime and appropriate penalties. A majority of traffic fatalities are, of course, accidents, meaning they would be labeled as involuntary vehicular manslaughter.
For instance, a person operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and causes an accident that kills someone would be charged with involuntary vehicular manslaughter to the first degree. Depending on the circumstances, it may be considered a Class B or C felony and punishable by five to 15 years or seven years in prison, respectively, and a fine of up to $5,000. A person charged with second degree involuntary manslaughter, which is a Class D felony, could face a $5,000 fine and as many as four years in prison.
In order for a driver to be convicted of vehicular manslaughter, it must be proven that:
- They were operating their vehicle in either a reckless or severely negligent manner; and
- The negligent driving behavior caused a fatality.
It’s important to note, simple careless behavior, such as going five miles over the speed limit, would not be ground for a vehicular manslaughter charge, though it could lead to a misdemeanor.
Driving Behaviors that Lead to Fatalities
Although the numbers of people who die in car accidents varies greatly according to each state, the reasons for fatal accidents are very similar. The good news is that despite the number of accidents annually increasing, those crashes have led to fewer deaths. Fatal accidents are typically the result of:
- Distracted drivers – Texting and cellphone usage are particularly egregious, though eating, drinking, paying attention to passengers, or anything that causes the driver to take their eyes off the road may lead to accidents and, consequently, fatalities.
- Drowsy drivers – Although often as dangerous as drunk driving, someone who fell asleep at the wheel wouldn’t necessarily be charged with manslaughter unless it could be proven they voluntarily sleepy at the wheel.
- Intoxicated drivers – Driving under the influence is one of the most common ways to prove negligence in car accidents. Even if the driver was below the legal limit for blood alcohol level, they can still be prosecuted. Intoxication applies not only to alcohol, but to other drugs and, sometimes, even prescription drugs.
- Reckless driving/violating safety regulations – In addition to distractions, failing to follow traffic laws or statutes, such as speeding or performing illegal U-turns, could lead to accidents. Whether or not a violation is serious enough to warrant involuntary manslaughter depends on the circumstances of the case.
- Inclement weather conditions – Weather is a frequent contributor to traffic fatalities. If a person was found to be driving recklessly in such conditions criminal charges might be appropriate.
- Defects on the street and highway – When road problems cause fatalities, it is unlikely charges would be brought against an individual, though the family of the deceased may wish to file charges against a government agency.
- Novice and elderly drivers – Young and inexperienced drivers are involved in the most accidents on the road. Elderly drivers, though they have more experience, tend to get in more accidents, especially after age sixty.
Missouri Car Accident Fault
When someone is in a car accident in Missouri, they are able to collect damages for the part of the accident they did not cause. In an accident where Driver A was 60 percent at fault and sustained $10,000 in damages and Driver B was 40 percent at fault and had $10,000 in damages, Driver A could collect $6,000 from Driver B’s insurance while Driver B could collect $4,000 from Driver A’s insurance.
While it is very common for accidents to be partially caused by both (or multiple) drivers involved, fault does not necessarily apply the same way if the accident leads to a fatality. If an accident resulted in the death one driver and both drivers were distracted by their cell phones, it is unlikely the judge would allow such evidence to be presented to the jury.
Car Accidents and Wrongful Death Claims
Even in car accident cases where a fatality occurred and the defendant is not found guilty of involuntary manslaughter (or there are no criminal charges), the beneficiaries of the victim have the option of filing a wrongful death claim through civil court. Missouri law defines who may bring up a wrongful death claim, though it is typically a surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, or parents. Through the case, beneficiaries of the deceased may collect a variety of economic and noneconomic compensation, including:
- Funeral and burial expenses;
- Medical expenses from the deceased person’s injury;
- Lost wages and benefits the deceased would have earned;
- Pain and suffering prior to death (if the fatality was not immediate); and
- Loss of consortium/companionship/guidance/etc. for survivors.
A wrongful death claim must be made within three years of the death date.
Get Help From an Experienced Missouri Car Accident Attorney
Regardless of whether it was a minor fender-bender or a major accident involving serious injuries or death, you need a car accident lawyer to fight for your rights. If you want to maximize the success of your car accident claim, contact the legal team at Krause & Kinsman Law Firm. For years, we’ve worked in car accident law in Kansas City and we know what it takes to win. Don’t hesitate to call us with any questions you have regarding your accident case.
Robert Kinsman is a personal injury, mass tort, business litigation, and employment discrimination attorney who practices in Kansas City, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law and has been practicing law for several years now. Robert Kinsman is passionate about normalizing the life of his clients after they have been seriously injured. Learn more about his experience here.