On July 31, a Tour Bus collided with the rear of a stopped vehicle causing multiple collisions and shutting down the Seward Highway for hours. One person died as the result of the collision and others were seriously injured.
So what happens next? Here is what I tell persons who call me immediately after highway tragedies like this.
1. There Will Be a Homicide Investigation.
Because the collision resulted in a death, there will be a formal homicide investigation. This will include a complete accident reconstruction and eventually an Alaska State Trooper Report detailing witness interviews, drug testing of the Tour Bus driver, the electronic data from the Tour Bus and other evidence. While this will provide the best starting point for a legal investigation, it will not be available for a minimum of several weeks.
2. The Most Important Priority is Grieving and Obtaining Medical Care.
The family of the gentleman who died has lost a loved one. The most important thing at this point in time is to honor the loved one and start the grieving process. This means providing for funeral services and being alone with family. I encourage clients to do nothing for 30 days.
For persons injured in the Tragedy, my recommendation is that they seek medical treatment. I encourage them to contact my office after their acute injuries have stabilized.
2. This Is Not a Shared Tragedy.
While the Tour Bus company or other victims may express concern and say otherwise, this is not a shared tragedy. The Tour Bus driver was supposedly trained to recognize the hazards of the Seward Highway and failed to operate the Bus safely.
3. There is No Reason to Have Contact with Tour Bus Company.
Corporate spokespersons and insurance adjusters often "reach out" to victim families. Other than the logistics of transporting the loved one home and returning personal effects, there is no reason to have any contact with these businesses. (There may be "Medical Payments Coverage" or "Funeral Expense Coverage" which may pay transportation expenses home). While some of this outreach may, indeed, be well-intentioned, a less attractive motivation is damage control and to assess what can be done immediately during a time of grief to reduce the business cost of the tragedy later.
4. Other than to Stop Contact with Insurance Companies, there is No Immediate Need to Contact a Lawyer.
For the same reasons that I have said that the most important priority is grieving and there is no reason to contact the Tour Bus company, there is also no immediate need to contact a lawyer. When clients call me, I share my respect for their loss and promise to call them in 30 days. Victims of the tragedy should wait until they are emotionally strong enough to discuss their loss.
There are exceptions to this: Hiring a lawyer is one way to stop or control contacts with the legally responsible corporations. The other exception is if there is person with first hand knowledge of the circumstances of the pilot's departure decision.
5. You Will Need a Lawyer.
In my experience, the legally responsible corporations grossly simplify claims and attempt to resolve claims so as to discourage lawyer involvement. One way or another, the help of a lawyer will be needed.
In any death, there are probate issues and the grieving family works through the process of administering the will, distributing personal effects, the financial impact of the sudden tragedy, and other issues. A big issue is often life insurance or other death benefits to help the family adjust to their new situation. This all will require legal help.
Another issue is valuation of the claim. This will be a function of the victim's financial situation, his family situation, including not just spouses and children but also other potential dependents like parents and friends as well as the ages of these people. This becomes complicated quickly. Just as one hires an accountant or realtor for taxes or sale of a house, a lawyer will be needed to address these issues. Without a proper valuation of a claim, it is impossible to make an informed decision as to what to do.
Finally, in cases involving cruise passengers, the cruise "ticket" (often found in an online contract) may raise legal issues. For example, it may require the filing of a lawsuit within 6 months or require suit in a specific state.
My last piece of advice in times like this is to remind callers that this is a complicated card game. They need to play the hand smartly. See www.Junelawyer.com.