The University of Georgia fans recently celebrated the Bulldogs’ second consecutive college football national championship. But that celebration was muted by the report that a member of that championship team, offensive lineman Devin Willock, died in a single-car crash just hours after the game. According to news and police reports, the driver of the car was a member of the Georgia football staff, who also died in the accident.
As of this writing, Willock’s family has not filed any legal action arising from his death. But high-profile accidents like this one often raise a number of questions regarding the law in this area. For example, can the family file a wrongful death lawsuit–and if so, against who? Keeping in mind this is an ongoing matter, here is a general explanation to Georgia’s wrongful death law and how it might be applied to this type of an accident.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Claim in Georgia?
A wrongful death lawsuit is one arising from the death of a person caused by the criminal or negligent actions of another. If the victim was married, their spouse has the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Otherwise, the victim’s children or parents can bring a claim. For example, Willock was reportedly unmarried and had no children, so his parents would have the right to bring any wrongful death claim.
Can You Sue a Driver Even If They Died in the Same Accident?
A police report filed after the accident that killed Willock listed “excessive speed” as a primary cause of the crash. A University of Georgia staff member was driving the car at the time. The police report elaborated that the driver had “failed to negotiate a left curve, resulting in the vehicle striking the curb with its front passenger tire and leaving the roadway on the west shoulder.”
Speeding is a common cause of fatal car accidents in Georgia. And a driver who causes a fatal accident by speeding–or violating any other established rule of the road–can be held liable for wrongful death. Wrongful death does not require proof of any intentional or criminal act. That is to say, the victim’s family does not have to prove the defendant was trying to cause their loved one’s death. The law only requires proof of some negligent act.
But in this scenario, the driver who allegedly caused the accident is also deceased. Does that prevent the family of a passenger from filing a wrongful death claim? No. In a situation such as this, the victims’ next of kin would file a lawsuit against the driver’s estate. The personal representative of that estate would then have to defend against the lawsuit. The driver’s auto insurance company could also be held responsible up to the limits of any policy in force at the time of the accident.
Does It Matter If the Victim Wore a Seatbelt?
The police report also said that Willock was not wearing his seatbelt when the fatal accident took place. Is there any legal significance to this? Could the driver’s estate argue that Willock’s actions contributed to his death and therefore reduced the driver’s culpability for what happened?
Georgia follows a “comparative fault” standard in all personal injury cases, which includes wrongful death claims. Basically, this means that when the negligence of multiple parties–including the plaintiff–may have led to an accident, a judge or jury must apportion the blame accordingly. The judge will then reduce the victim’s damages to account for their percentage of fault.
But comparative negligence usually comes into play when talking about a multi-car accident, not a single-vehicle crash. More to the point, the comparative fault rule does not apply to a passenger who failed to wear a seat belt. Georgia law is quite clear on this point: A judge or jury cannot consider a failure to wear a seat belt as “evidence of negligence or causation” in a personal injury or wrongful death case.
Why is University of Georgia Officials Investigating?
The Associated Press reported on January 24, 2023, that University of Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks stated that neither Willock nor the driver of the car was on “athletic department business” at the time of the accident. Brooks added that his department “[conducted] a thorough review, in coordination with appropriate legal counsel, to fully understand the circumstances surrounding this tragic event.”
If this sounds like Brooks was trying to minimize the chance the University itself might be sued, you would be right. In a wrongful death case involving a motor vehicle accident, it is sometimes possible to hold an employer responsible if their employee’s negligence was responsible for the fatal accident. This is known as vicarious liability under Georgia law.
But vicarious liability requires proof that at the time of the accident, the driver-employee was acting within the course and scope of their employment. And as a general rule, if an employee was “off the clock,” then the employer is not responsible. This includes any time spent commuting to and from work. So if, hypothetically speaking, an employee was driving home from a work-related event and caused an accident by excessive speeding, the employer would likely not be held legally responsible to the victims.
Another report suggested the car that Willock was riding in at the time of his death was a rental vehicle. Does this mean the rental car company could be held vicariously liable in a wrongful death claim? The answer here is likely “no.” There is actually a federal law known as the Graves Amendment that bars such claims. The Graves Amendment is a part of federal highway law and states that a rental car company cannot be held liable for any accident caused by a rental driver unless the company’s own negligence or criminal actions directly contributed to those injuries.
Speak with an Atlanta Wrongful Death Lawyer Today
If you have lost a loved one in a car accident, you may find yourself asking many of the same questions as discussed above. And you will likely have many more questions as the days and weeks pass. Our team can help answer those questions and provide you with skilled, compassionate legal representation. So if you need to speak with an experienced Atlanta wrongful death attorney, contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today at (404) 529-3476 to schedule a free consultation.