One of the most tragic kinds of case that we encounter is that involving the death of a child. Oftentimes it is in the context of a serious automobile collision but obviously death due to negligent behavior comes in a variety of forms. It is particularly difficult to deal with the death of a innocent child. It is also difficult to evaluate such a claim because of the emotions involved. Nonetheless, there are criteria that can be used in evaluating such claims even though financial “compensation” for such a loss is essentially an oxymoron when it comes to the death of a child.
The best measurement for the value of the death of a child is historical jury research. Juries have to wrestle with the difficult questions posed by these cases and have to put a dollar value on the death of the child. Because children do not have an earnings record nor typically any lost wages, as a general rule, juries have to look at the parents’ background and the child’s anticipated life expectancy and then project out over the course of the life expectancy a dollar amount to compensate for the loss of life. As we have written before in prior entries, in Georgia the measure of damages is the “full value of the life of the decedent” which includes both economic and non-economic components. The measure of damages is measured from the viewpoint of the decedent. What experiences did he or she lose when they lost their life at a young age? Obviously, they will never marry, have children, have a career and experience the joy of life for the duration of their anticipated life expectancy were it not for their premature wrongful death. While such decisions defy mathematical calculations by any jury, nonetheless, juries must come up with a figure to represent the full value of the life of the deceased child. The only guiding principle provided to a jury is that they must do so according to “their enlightened conscience.” Different juries in different parts of the state might look at the same evidence and come up with different verdicts. Of course, this is true in any case but demographics do play a role in these cases. If the child is very young and the parents are still in childbearing age, sometimes even though they should not do so, jurors take such factors into consideration. However, if the parents are not likely to bear additional children and an only child is lost, of course, again, while that factor does not measure damages from the standpoint of the decedent, nonetheless, juries may take it into consideration.
In cases of this nature it is important that counsel produce evidence before the jury showing what type of life the child would likely have had, whether it be evidence by way of educational opportunities, the parents’ background, any special skills or attribute already developed by the child, etc. These cases are always difficult and juries struggle with them as do attorneys. Nonetheless, the challenge in these tragic cases must be met through competency, diligence and preparation by experienced counsel who has the ability to present all pertinent information available to establish, insofar as possible, “the full value of the life of the decedent.”