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Wrongful Death Cases and the Problem of the “Judgment Proof” Defendant

Accidental deaths are emotionally traumatic for family members left behind. If you can bring a wrongful death claim, however, you might obtain some measure of justice, as well as compensation to cover financial and emotional losses.

But what happens if the defendant has no money to pay? A person might be liable for the death of your loved one but lack any resources or cash. In the legal profession, we call this person a “judgment proof” defendant. In short, they have absolutely no money or insurance that can pay a settlement or court award in your favor—even when they are liable for your loved one’s death.

At Powers & Santola, LLP, we have handled countless wrongful death claims. Our firm has sued more than one judgment-proof defendant. We have developed techniques for getting our clients compensation even when a defendant lacks insurance. Call us today to find out more.

Doesn’t the Defendant Have Insurance?

A defendant is judgment proof when they have no resources to pay a wrongful death judgment against them. For example, we might sue for your loved one’s fatal accident and win at trial. Unfortunately, all you get is a piece of paper telling you how much the defendant needs to pay. If they have no money, then you will probably get nothing.

Most defendants should have an insurance policy, so they are not considered judgment proof:

  • Car drivers: A driver should have mandatory liability coverage, which will kick in and pay compensation in the event the driver causes a death.
  • Property owners: A homeowner could have homeowner’s insurance, and a renter might have renter’s insurance. These policies should cover accidental deaths on the premises.
  • Business defendants: A business should have liability policies to cover any accidents caused on their property or by their products. For example, if your loved one died in a slip and fall in a grocery store, then the store’s liability policy should cover it.
  • Government entities. The government also carries insurance to cover accidental deaths caused by negligent employees.
  • Medical professionals: Both hospitals and doctors should have malpractice insurance as a prerequisite to being allowed to practice in New York.

Although all of these people should have insurance, many do not. About 4% of New York drivers are uninsured. And many homeowners or renters do not have insurance for their premises.

Does the Defendant Have Other Resources?

Insurance is not the only pool of money—though it is the most convenient. We also need to know if the defendant owns property or has assets to their name. New York law exempts some income from attachment, so you can’t use the following to satisfy a court judgment:

  • Disability benefits
  • Social Security benefits
  • Public assistance
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Veterans benefits
  • Spousal support alimony
  • Retirement accounts
  • Public and private pensions

 Some personal property is also exempt from attachment if you win a judgment against the defendant:

  • Most household goods
  • Jewelry (up to $1,000)
  • One vehicle (up to $4,000 in value)
  • Medical devices
  • Homestead (up to $50,000 of equity)

Even someone who owns a home or works a job could exempt most of what they possess, which is bad news for family members seeking justice with a wrongful death claim.

How We Get Money for Our Clients

The lawyers at Powers & Santola, LLP, have brought lawsuits against many judgment proof defendants. Over the decades, we have learned that we can sometimes still obtain compensation for our clients by pursuing some of the options discussed below.

We Add a Defendant

Some accidents are the fault of more than one person. If so, we can add additional defendants to your wrongful death claim:

  • Property owner. Imagine your loved one is killed in an attack in a hotel, motel, apartment, or store. The property owner might have lacked adequate security for the premises. For example, a store might not have had any security cameras, fences, or guards when your loved one is killed in the parking lot. If this is a high crime area, then a lack of security might qualify as negligence, and we could sue the property owner for your loved one’s wrongful death.
  • Another driver. If your loved one died in a multiple-vehicle accident, then several motorists could share liability for the fatal crash.
  • Mechanic or car manufacturer. A defect on your loved one’s car might contribute to an accident. The brakes might have failed, or the steering system might not have worked properly. In addition to suing the person who struck your loved one in a fatal accident, we might also sue the mechanic or car manufacturer.
  • Rental car company. If your family member was struck by a rental car, we can typically sue the rental company if the driver lacked insurance. New York rental car companies should insure every vehicle they own.
  • Defendant’s employer. The person who accidentally killed your family member could have been on the job at the time. Under New York law, employers are usually liable when their employees negligently hurt someone while working. Adding an employer is ideal since they should have liability coverage.

We Look for Other Insurance Policies

Sometimes, we can find additional insurance policies that will cover a fatal accident. For example, a sole proprietor might have carried business liability coverage, which could kick in even if they don’t have other insurance. Your loved one probably had PIP benefits, which has a small death benefit, or they could have had uninsured motorist insurance. Let our experienced lawyers look to pursue all avenues of compensation.

Call Our Albany Wrongful Death Attorneys for Assistance

At Powers & Santola, we pride ourselves on obtaining fair compensation for our clients, even in challenging circumstances. You can count on us to thoroughly investigate any accident and find all possible defendants.

New York’s wrongful death law is always changing, and politicians introduce new bills regularly. We stay on top of the changes in the law to get your loved ones the resources you need. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with our legal team.

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