Car Accident Tragedy
October 28, 2004 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Someone in my immediate family was involved in a car accident today on a highway, and he was in the wrong (though no alcohol or drugs were involved). Not only that, but the other driver was killed, and he is probably going to be charged. He is traumatized, extremely distressed, in a bad state mentally. My question is for advice from anyone who has dealt with this kind of situation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Get him a good criminal attorney and start looking for a civil attorney, as the chances are great for a lawsuit in addition to the criminal charges.

And tell him not to let his grief over the accident inspire him to do something which may be seen as an admission of culpability which could hurt him. (i.e. Sending a letter to the other driver's family.)

Also, strongly recommend that he find a traumatic stress counselor, and speak to them very very soon. PTSD is very likely to rear its ugly head here, and that's just going to make it all even worse than it is.
posted by Dreama at 6:32 PM on October 28, 2004

Yes, as much as your family member may have made a wrong decision on the road, we all take that risk to some degree every time we get behind the wheel. It sounds like he's already suffering the worst punishment of all over this. Defend him from incarceration, which won't help anyone. His legal defense will give him something to focus on, too.

I know I would be outraged if some bad driver killed a member of my family, but for myself, right now, removed from the situation, I know that driving is incredibly dangerous, yet I choose to keep doing it. That's my choice. I don't know if that will help your loved one at all on a philosophical/moral level. But in our litigious society, we're too obsessed with the idea that we can bring justice to life's tragedies by finding someone to blame.

I wish you the best luck.
posted by scarabic at 6:54 PM on October 28, 2004

No advice, because it would all be negative transference. All I can say is today would have been my sister's 37th birthday, had she not been killed by an inattentive driver at a stop sign while riding her bicycle many years ago.

If today had not been her birthday, I probably would not have answered this post.

I have no idea what happened to the driver, legally. It would have been too painful to find out. If you want to hear about the other side of the story, I have written about it at length. You probably don't want to read it.
posted by mwhybark at 7:45 PM on October 28, 2004

I have a not-super-close family member in an ongoing similar situation to what you describe. While I'm not too involved personally, being a more distant family member, I can pass on a litle bit of advice from talking to other family members
- Dreama is spot on, talk to attorneys, avoid talking too much about it to people outside the immediate family [this can sometimes be hard if there are reports written publicly but it's really in everyone's best interest to stay quiet]. If you have family or friends who are lawyers, solicit their advice and try to get lawyers with specific experience in similar cases
- The best thing you can probably do with your family member is run interference with the hurdles they will be facing, some of which will be technical and logistical and some of which will be emotional. Getting a good counselor is crucial as is making a solid plan.
- Keep in mind this will not be over for a long time, or ever really be over, even though things will return to a semblance of normal. Whatever way your family member chooses to deal with this, and whatever the legal outcome is, they will need your support not just now, but basically always.
- As far as what to do right now, besides just being available and helping with various arrangements, the best thing you can do is be present, try to be non-judgmental, offer opportunities to talk but don't press it, and offer distraction preferably the kind that isn't personally destructive [watching a lot of TV beats drinking yourself into oblivion]
- As a family you may want to talk about splitting up responsibilities for who handles what [driving to legal appointments, dealing with potential incarceration, financial planning and dealing with insurance] because it will be arduous and, again, not over any time soon. The more your family is able to cope without getting overly stressed and having that trickle down to your family member in trouble, the better it will be for him.
- Lastly, the other family is going through their own griving process and may or may not contact your family. You will probably want to be prepared for this if it happens and at the very least if there is a trial you willl have to face them then. This is unbelievably hard but, as the at-fault party, even though your family member probably also feels badly, there is going to be a certain amount of hell to catch [in addition to legal/financial stuff] which is best prepared for in advance.
Good luck, feel free to email me if you want to chat specifics.
posted by jessamyn at 8:06 PM on October 28, 2004

There are no "accidents". I disagree with much of the advice given above.

Forget the attorneys.

Advise the "someone", when he or she is able, to take full responsibility for the "accident". Admit wrongdoing. Do whatever can be done in this horrible situation to try to make amends (an impossible goal, but the process...ah, the process...) Ask for forgiveness. Forgive yourself.

These are not the expedient things to do. They are not the easy things to do. They are not the safe things to do.

They are the right things to do.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 10:08 PM on October 28, 2004

My younger sister was killed in a car accident two years ago by a sixteen year old girl (no alcohol or drugs were involved). The girl got a slap on the wrist from the judge and went on her way.

I would have loved to receive a letter or some sort of communication from her letting us know that she was deeply sorry for our loss. But we have not heard from her or her family.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:45 PM on October 28, 2004

f+m: they call them "accidents" for a good reason, and even those of us with the best of intentions can make mistakes -- even fatal mistakes. Choking on your own food, being lost in thought at a poor moment while in a car, not understanding the road is that slippery, it doesn't matter what, human beings make mistakes that sometimes have horrible consequences that no one would have assented to let alone intended. And that's why the word responsibility is a bit strong here -- anonymous's family member did make choices which led to participation in events which led to a loss of human life, but likely would never have made any such direct choice.

That said, even though I think full responsibility is probably too heavy a burden, I think the advice about seeking forgiveness and trying to make amends is good. But it has to happen in a context free from attempts to extract retribution. The first task here on the part of anonymous here has to be to protect two lives from being ruined rather than one... after that is the only real environment that what you talk about can happen in. I second all the good advice about that.
posted by weston at 12:27 AM on October 29, 2004

f&m, you're right, those are the right things to do.

However, he's not Jesus. And I think we all know what happened to Jesus when he did the "right thing". I'm athiest. Take it at face value as a history lesson.

The world should strive for justice. Because, when it all comes down to it, justice isn't always right for today, but it is ALWAYS the right thing for tomorrow. How many wars we could have avoided if people were to follow an ethic like that?

Justice, clearly, is to stop this man driving until he is no longer a danger to others. And justice is to repay that family what is due to that family for this mistake. Justice is to ensure this man shares in the greif and loss that the family he has wrecked is experiencing, so that he never does this again. Justice would be completed by this man, and the state ensuring events like this occurr less frequently.

Justice is not putting someone who never had any interest or intention to break the rules of society in jail. And, rest assured, that is what will happen to this man for a long time if he follows your advice.
posted by shepd at 2:29 AM on October 29, 2004

foldy, I'm a big Francis of Assisi fan, too, but they're called "accidents" because supposedly people didn't mean to kill somebody in the first place. sorry for the tautology but they're, like, accidents. the guy who wanted to run over Katherine Harris? No accident, for sure. A regular car crash where somebody is hurt? Accident, definitely.

Unless one want to go metaphysical, determinism etc. but that'd go beyond the purpose of this thread.

those who'd like to stay out of jail can do worse than getting a good lawyer, in order to accomplish that goal. a spiritual path of acceptance of the consequence of one's action does not necessarily have to happen behind bars
posted by matteo at 4:18 AM on October 29, 2004

that said, if I had lost a family member in a car crash, I'd be a bit more pointed in my answer, that's for sure
posted by matteo at 4:19 AM on October 29, 2004

i am an attorney, but not your attorney. this is my opinion about criminal cases in general; not specific advice with regard to your family's legal situation.

dreama's advice (and jessamyn's concurrence) cannot be stressed enough. your family member (no matter how horrified, traumatized and truly remorsefult) should under no circumstances talk to the other family or the press or anyone about the accident (not even you, really, but that's getting into legal advice, which i'm not going to do) without his own attorney present. and when his own attorney says "don't say that." "don't do that." for god's sake, listen to the attorney. once the cases are over, that is the time for the apology, the expressions of remorse to the other family. i hate my profession sometimes; this is one of those times. nonetheless, it is essential that you listen to the cold-blooded attorney standing between you and the cold-blooded attorney trying to make your family member pay for the rest of his life.

that's going to be very very hard. you can't really get to some essential parts of healing--including talking with the other family--until the lawyers have stopped circling and gone home. good luck.

contact victims services at the courthouse. they don't generally work with defendants, but they will (usually) help the defendant's family with the court process, which can seem bizarre to people who aren't knee-deep in it every day.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:03 AM on October 29, 2004

Now that others have been brave enough to respond, so will I.

My wife was nearly killed about a year ago by an irresponsible driver. He was at the stop sign of a T intersection, watched my go by on my motorcycle, and then ran over her motorcycle, severely damaging her arms in the process and missing her torso by mere inches.

People make mistakes, yes, but accidents are few and far between. He chose to disregard standard safe driving practices, ie. checking for oncoming traffic. He chose to drive on auto-pilot, instead of as a conscious, deliberate, responsible operator of a potentially lethal vehicle. He allowed himself to be not-conscious of his behaviour.

Every time I get in the car, I am aware of the fact that I could quickly and easily create a situation in which I am solely responsible for causing someone to be injured or killed. Every g.d. driver should have this attitude. It behooves us to be safe, not for own selves, but for all others with whom we share the road.

We have had no contact with the kid that ran over my wife. We don't want contact with him. I would be upset if he contacted us directly.

So my advice is that all communication with the grieving family should be done through the insurance agencies/investigators/third parties. Inquire if the family would like to meet, and respect their decision.

I feel much worse for the dead person's family than for your brother. He's going to forget it over time. They never, ever will. And that is nearly the ultimate in unfair.

Please note that my attitudes and opinions are informed by my experience as a driver and as a victim. YMMV.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:26 AM on October 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

I would also respond to f&m by saying that there is a distinct difference between being "in the wrong" and being criminally negligent. The criminal justice system can't easily distinguish between the two without some sort of investigation. One would be, well, insane, to enter that process without the help of an expert (ie attorney).

The criminal justice system does not operate under the same philosophical system that you promote, no matter how noble it is. In fact, it shouldn't. It would be just as irresponsible to suggest that the victims family simply forgive the driver and not pursue criminal prosecution, as that is "the right thing to do."
posted by Doug at 12:00 PM on October 29, 2004

this may seem like an offensive or trivial comparison, but yesterday i was publicly reprimanded for queue jumping. if you ask me, i would say i never queue jump - it annoys me when other do - yet i can see how what i did was seen that way. i'd like to say i wouldn't do it again, but at the time it made sense, so how can i be sure?

that kept me up half the night, and i would keep finding myself running through the events in my head, trying to understand how it could have turned out that way. in the end, i said to myself "look, i screwed up. shit happens. i'll try not to do it again. that's all i can do".

obviously, in your relative's case this is hugely more significant, with a much larger impact on their life, and other's. but i don't see any other emotional solution apart from that process. it helps if you give others the same benefit of the doubt, i guess, at times. so if i were talking to them, i wouldn't say "it's ok" or "it wasn't your fault". instead, i'd say "ok, you screwed up. you can't alter the past, but you can try to make it not happen again. take what comes as well as you can, try to make amends where possible, but also try to forgive yourself. you can't live with hating yourself - if only one person in the world is going to give you a break, it has to be you. we're your friends, your family, we're still here - you need to be here, for yourself, too."

good luck.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:38 PM on October 29, 2004

fold_and_mutilate has a point, though the ideal may be difficult to live up to. On the other hand, in an ideal world, the victim's family would also reach out to the person who caused the accident and forgive.

That being said, once the State intervenes we're no longer just talking about personal responsibilities, we're dealing with the impersonal imposition of possibly arbitrary sanctions. Follow the advice about the lawyer, personal expressions of regret can come after the law has done its worst.

A very close relative of mine was knocked down and killed while crossing a road. Frankly, I'm glad that the person who did it did not end up behind bars. I don't want an apology. I do however hope he has the occasional nightmare about it, just enough to remind him that this will never really be over for any of us.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:27 PM on October 29, 2004

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