There has been a minor international uproar over a fatal car accident that seems to have been caused by the wife of a U.S. diplomat to the United Kingdom.
According to the British police, the crash involved a car that was driving on the wrong side of the road when it hit a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist, a 19-year-old native of England, died in the crash in Northamptonshire, where the U.S. Air Force has a base.
As many people are aware, in Britain people drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Police suspect that the driver of the car that hit the motorcycle was driven by the wife of a U.S. ambassador to Britain. However, she left the country very soon after the crash – further raising suspicions.
Diplomats and their families have special privileges under the 1961 Vienna Convention – an international treaty governing international missions that have been signed by 192 countries, including the U.S. and Britain. These privileges are meant to prevent a diplomat's host country – the country in which they are stationed – from harassing, threatening, or coercing diplomats as a way of intimidating or pressuring the country they have come from.
One of the most important privileges that diplomats enjoy comes from Article 29 of the Convention. It immunizes diplomats from criminal or civil prosecution by their host country. They cannot be arrested and charged with a crime, and cannot be accused of wrongdoing and made to pay compensation in a civil lawsuit or personal injury claim.
Article 37 of the Convention extends these immunities to a diplomat's family members, as well.
However, the country that sent the diplomat can agree to waive those immunities under Article 32. By waiving a diplomat's immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, they or their family members can be held liable for someone else's injuries or brought to trial for a criminal allegation.
However, when police asked the U.S. to waive the civil immunity of the wife of the U.S. diplomat who caused the crash, the U.S. refused. The refusal incensed British lawmakers and sparked an outcry.
The U.S. State Department has claimed that “immunity is rarely waived,” and offered condolences to the family of the young victim of the crash.
For those family members, though, condolences were hardly enough. Like in the U.S., the family members and loved ones of the victim in a fatal accident can file a wrongful death claim against the person or parties that caused the death. In England, those claims are either:
- Dependency claims, which focus on compensating the people who relied on the deceased person for financial support
- Bereavement claims, which focus on the pain, suffering, and loss of consortium felt by the victim's loved ones
- Funeral expenses claims, which focus on getting compensation to cover for the victim's funeral
Because the victim in this case was only 19 years old, the last two claims would likely drive the lawsuit against the diplomat's wife, should the U.S. reconsider its decision not to waive her immunity.