In a perfect world, everyone would die a comfortable, natural death after living a full life. In the real world, lives are cut short by the deliberate or careless actions of others. That isn’t fair. It isn’t just. And as much as I would like to bring about justice as a wrongful death lawyer, too often there is nothing I can do.
Wrongful death lawyers are paid a percentage of the compensation they obtain for surviving family members. To earn a fee, we need to settle the claim or win the case in court. But it isn’t enough to win a trial. We also need to collect the verdict.
It is easy to win a wrongful death trial when a victim is murdered. Juries are willing to award vast sums because they feel enormous sympathy for the victim’s family. But even if the murderer is insured, insurance policies contain a clause called an “intentional acts” exclusion. Insurance pays for damages caused by negligent or careless conduct but not for intentional misconduct. Insurers must pay compensation when a driver runs over a victim accidentally but not when the driver does so intentionally.
It is a sad reality that individuals who commit murder are rarely in a position to pay wrongful death claims. Few and far between are wrongful death defendants with the wealth of O.J. Simpson. Most people who commit murder have no assets or they sell their assets to raise money for a defense. What little property they have in their name when they go to prison is usually exempt from execution, a legal term that means the property cannot be seized to satisfy a wrongful death judgment.
It is possible to sue people who have little or no money. Surviving family members may appreciate the symbolic significance of winning a large judgment that they can never collect. I would like to make those people feel better but, like other wrongful death lawyers, I need to earn a living. I can only do that by spending my time helping people win compensation rather than symbolic victories. And if I spent my time suing uninsured killers who will never pay a judgment, I would have no time to help people who have the chance to receive financial compensation for their losses. Still, it makes me feel awful that I cannot represent everyone who deserves their day in court.
California car owners are required to carry liability insurance that will compensate victims of injuries caused by negligent driving. Unfortunately, the minimum liability limits that owners of a passenger vehicle must carry are a bad joke. Car owners in California only need to buy $15,000 of coverage for a single injury or death that results from a single accident. Ads on the internet tell drivers they can buy a policy with minimum coverage for just a few dollars a month.
If a driver with $15,000 policy limits negligently kills someone in a traffic accident, the policy limits will barely cover burial and funeral expenses. The limits will not replace lost income or provide anything close to reasonable compensation for a family member’s death.
I understand that drivers earning minimum wage are on a tight budget. At the same time, I understand that insurance companies are among the most profitable businesses traded on Wall Street. By charging a slightly higher premium and making a slightly smaller profit, they could write policies that provide liability limits of $50,000 or $100,000.
I am ashamed to be part of a civil justice system that elevates insurance company profits over the need to compensate deserving victims. California’s minimum liability insurance limits are among the lowest in the nation. California should make car owners carry higher minimum limits, but insurance companies, unlike victims, can afford to hire lobbyists and make campaign contributions. That makes insurance reform difficult to achieve.
It also makes life hard for the surviving families of victims who die in car accidents. When liability is clear, an insurer that sold a policy with $15,000 limits will usually pay those limits without making much of an argument. Families don’t need to hire me to help with those cases. I always look for additional insurance coverage that might be available under other policies, but in most cases there is nothing I can do. As is true of murderers, underinsured drivers rarely have assets that make lawsuits worth pursuing.
Sometimes family members will come to be seeking representation that I am happy to provide in a wrongful death case. At the same time, other family members will ask me “What’s the point of suing? Blood money won’t bring the dead back to life.”
It hurts me to hear that because I know it is true that money will not restore a lost life. The financial compensation I obtain for family members can never replace lost love, companionship, or guidance. Money does not make pain go away.
At the same time, I know that someone who dies in an accident would want his or her family members to receive the financial support that the victim can no longer provide. Emotional suffering should not be compounded by financial suffering. If I can help families cope with a wrongful death by assuring that they do not lose their homes because they lost a provider’s income, I am proud to do that.
I also know that the law is imperfect. Money is not a true measure of justice, but it is the only measure we have. While I wish there were a better way to compensate individuals for a loss, I know that society has rejected “eye-for-an-eye” retribution for good reason. In an imperfect world, winning financial compensation for the families of wrongful death victims is the best thing I can do to help them. I wish I could do more but I am happy to do what I can within the limits of our civil justice system.
Those who have lost family members and would like to find out more about pursuing justice can call (800) 838-6644 for a free case evaluation from an experienced legal profesisonal.
Timothy J. Ryan & Associates has earned a national reputation for aggressive client advocacy and real results. We are proud to offer 100% free, confidential consultations.