Wrongful death damages include funeral expenses, loss of future income and services, and much more. Lawsuits may be filed by family or by the decedent’s estate.
Wrongful death is a fatality that happens because of a negligent or intentional act. Sadly, wrongful acts causing the death of a person occur in many circumstances.
Compensation for death claims arising from car accidents, medical malpractice, and other incidents is usually paid by the at-fault party’s insurance company.
A civil action may be filed in addition to any criminal charges brought by the state, like DUI resulting in death.
When criminal acts result in death, the victim’s family may be eligible for compensation and assistance from the state’s crime victim compensation program.
Types of Damages in Wrongful Death Cases
In a wrongful death action, the surviving family members, or representatives of the deceased person’s estate, seek compensatory damages from the at-fault party in the form of economic and non-economic losses.
Economic damages, also called monetary damages, hard costs, or special damages, are losses that can be objectively measured by bills, receipts, and financial statements.
Measurable monetary losses can include:
- Medical expenses
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Future income the decedent would have earned
Non-economic damages, also called non-monetary damages or general damages, represent intangibles. Intangibles don’t come with a bill or receipt, but are recognizable losses just the same. Intangible losses are commonly lumped together as pain and suffering.
Non-economic damages may include:
- Pain and suffering the deceased may have endured prior to death
- The loss of companionship suffered by family members
- The loss of guidance and mentoring the decedent’s children must endure
- Loss of consortium (intimate relations) suffered by the spouse
- Loss of love, nurturing, protection, and other varied emotional support
- Other emotional losses the jury decides are compensable
Crime Victim’s Family Compensation
Families of homicide victims may be eligible for financial assistance through their state crime victim’s compensation fund.
The benefits for families often include:
- Funeral expenses
- Grief counseling
- Crime scene cleanup for homicides in private residences
- Emergency expenses
Factors Considered in Wrongful Death Awards
Every state has wrongful death laws enacted to provide compensation to those who suffered the needless loss of a loved one. Laws also serve as a warning to those whose reckless or negligent actions might cause a future unnecessary death.
The laws dictate how judges and juries evaluate wrongful death cases and render fair verdicts. They also provide guidelines for assessing liability and damages.
Although state laws in wrongful death suits guide judges and juries, the value of a person’s life and the effect of their death on loved ones can’t be measured.
Therefore, judges and juries have flexibility in deciding how much to award in monetary and non-monetary damages. Often their verdicts are based more on the emotional, non-economic aspects of a case than economic ones.
When calculating financial losses, factors considered include:
- The age and life expectancy of the decedent
- The income of the decedent
- The decedent’s general health
- The age and living arrangements of the decedent’s children
- Other persons financially dependent on the decedent
- The decedent’s level of education or special training
- The decedent’s benefits, like health insurance provided to the family
Proving non-monetary damages normally requires emotional witness testimony from immediate family members, loved ones, and legal dependents. Each witness must convince the jury how great their loss is.
There’s no tool to calculate the impact of such testimony. Different states vary in the type of non-monetary losses surviving family members and legal dependents can claim.
Case Example: $10 Million Awarded to Parents for Wrongful Death of Son
Robert and Anne Branen sued the RV dealership and driver of a Winnebago motorhome for the death of their son, Jacob Branen.
Ronald Scirroto was driving a 24-foot Winnebago back to the La Mesa RV Center dealership from an RV show when the incident occurred. Jacob was walking to work outside the white line on the shoulder of the road when he was struck by the Winnebago. Jason was transported to the nearest medical center, where he died from his injuries.
Scirroto and the RV dealership alleged that Jason suddenly stepped into the roadway and caused the accident. Attorneys for the Branens provided evidence to the Florida jury that Scirroto swerved off the road, hitting Jason.
The jury found in favor of the Branens, awarding $10,031,525 for the wrongful death of their 29-year-old son.
Most wrongful death lawsuits are settled before they reach trial. Defense attorneys and their clients are painfully aware of the impact witness testimony can have on a jury.
When a fatal personal injury happens because the defendant’s negligence was particularly malicious or egregious, the jury may also award punitive damages.
Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are meant to penalize the defendant. Their purpose is not to compensate the plaintiffs for their losses. Punitive damages are only awarded to punish and make an example of the defendant.
A recent example is the historic amount of punitive damages awarded in the Texas wrongful death case below.
Case Example: Jury Awards $301 Billion In Wrongful Death Case
Tamra Kindred and her 16-year-old granddaughter were killed when a drunk driver, Joshua Delbosque, crashed into them while running a red light at 91 miles per hour.
Kindred’s daughters filed suit against the Beer Belly Sports Bar, alleging the bar overserved Delbosque “a dangerous amount of alcohol” before the fatal crash.
The jury agreed, ordering the bar and its owner to pay $1.04 billion in compensatory damages and another $300 billion in exemplary damages.
This landmark damages award is intended to warn other bars that they may be liable for harm caused by intoxicated patrons. However, the award is largely symbolic, as the bar has gone out of business.
Wrongful Death Settlements and Awards
A North Carolina law school analysis of wrongful death cases reports the average payout for a wrongful death case can range from $4,000 to more than $10 million.
The wide compensation range is attributed to four main factors:
- Type of death – violent deaths often result in higher settlements
- Jury award or settlement – jury awards tend to be higher than settlements
- Age of the decedent- compensation is generally reduced as age increases
- Insurance – compensation is often limited to available liability insurance
Despite statistics showing higher compensation awarded by juries, most cases are settled out of court. When the at-fault party’s insurance company is willing to accept liability on behalf of the insured, the claimant saves time, money, and the stress of rehashing the death of a loved one in open court.
When a case is settled, the battle is over and there is no appeal. Most insurance companies insist the settlement amount remain confidential as a condition of settlement.
Cases that end up going to trial can take years and many thousands of dollars in litigation and preparation costs. Even if the jury finds in favor of the plaintiffs (the family or estate of the deceased), the defendant (at-fault party) can appeal the decision to a higher court, and almost certainly will in multi-million dollar cases.
Case Example: $3 Million Wrongful Death Verdict Overturned on Appeal
Francis Mitchell died a few days after laparoscopic surgery performed by Dr. Andrew Green. Autopsy results indicated Mitchell suffered a perforated bowel that led to a fatal infection.
Shirley Metcalf, Mitchell’s mother and executrix of Mitchell’s estate, along with Mitchell’s two adult daughters filed a wrongful death case against Dr. Green and other medical providers at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
The trial jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs (Mitchell’s mother and daughters) in the amount of $3 million. Defendants Green and NGMC appealed, arguing that under Georgia’s wrongful death law, only a surviving spouse has a cause of action for a wrongful death claim. Since Mitchell was not divorced from her estranged husband when she died, her mother and adult children have no standing to file a wrongful death suit.
The Court of Appeals of Georgia agreed, overturning the verdict and sending the case back to the lower court for a new trial.
Why You Need an Attorney
Wrongful death lawsuits are always high-dollar claims involving complex litigation. These cases are also time-sensitive. Despite the family’s overwhelming grief, the statute of limitations is running, meaning a lawsuit must be filed before the legal deadline.
Insurance companies won’t care about your grief or what’s best for your family. There is no way a family member or personal representative can fight to recover the amount of compensation a skilled attorney can pursue.
Cases with multiple liable parties, including corporate defendants, are extremely challenging to litigate. All wrongful death suits require extensive pre-trial discovery, including depositions, interrogatories, medical testimony, actuarial accounting and extrapolations, and more. This all requires substantial legal expertise and advanced funding.
Also, many states have special rules for handling compensation paid to children. An attorney will make sure the cost of administering settlements for the decedent’s beneficiaries will be covered by the defendants, not taken out of the children’s award.
Talk to an experienced wrongful death attorney from the start. Most attorneys won’t charge for the initial consultation and will represent you on a contingency fee basis, meaning the attorney won’t get paid until the family does.
There’s too much at stake to try handling a wrongful death case on your own. Find out what a good attorney can do for you and your family.
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