Articles Tagged with Personal Injury

We read in the paper this week about a tragedy which occurred on Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta. A ski boat being operated by an individual under the influence of alcohol crashed head-on into a pontoon boat occupied by 13 people. Many of the people on the pontoon boat were seriously injured and apparently two young boys killed. As of the date of this blog, the authorities were still searching for a missing 9-year old boy. The driver of the ski boat was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident and after the horrific collision actually fled the scene. He was later arrested and charged with homicide and failure to render aid.

This tragic incident proves once again that driving under the influence whether on land in a vehicle or on water in a boat can be extremely deadly for people in the vicinity of such irresponsible driver/operators. We have blogged before about the dangers on lakes particularly during holiday seasons and the summer months when many people are recreating on local lakes. Boating under the influence, particularly at night as happened to be the case in this most recent tragedy, can be extremely dangerous because of visibility problems. Suffice it to say that during the summer months when many more people are on lakes in boats there needs to be a designated driver for the boat and if the principal operator has been drinking, such drinking must be curtailed to a minimum so as not to expose other members of the public to the dangers of boating under the influence.

As a result of this horrific incident, obviously, there will likely be a long jail sentence for the boat operator under the influence because of the death of the two young boys and the serious injuries sustained by others. Leaving the scene only made the situation worse. Whether the boating operator is financially responsible and had sufficient liability insurance coverage to provide a modicum of relief for the affected families is unknown.

Because damages in a wrongful death context are measured from the standpoint of the decedent and are considered under Georgia case authority to be somewhat punitive since the damages include compensation for the full value of the life of the decedent, in a wrongful death case, per se, punitive damages cannot be sought. However, in a case where there has been pre-impact fright and terror, pain and suffering associated with injuries prior to death and/or property damages sustained by the estate, the estate can sue for punitive damages assuming the facts of the case are sufficiently aggravated as to justify an award of punitive damages against the at fault party.
By way of example only, in a case where a drunk driver causes a wrongful death and the decedent survives for a period and is hospitalized and incurs medical expenses prior to death, the estate can sue the driver for pain and suffering prior to death, funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses and punitive damages. The heirs-at-law may only sue for the full value of the life of the decedent and may not seek punitive damages as part of such wrongful death damages since the wrongful death statute is considered to be somewhat punitive by nature. The Administrator can sue for punitive damages where aggravated circumstances are involved even though the decedent’s heirs-at-law may not. Again, the bifurcated nature of these claims in Georgia is unique and while punitive damages may not be obtained in the wrongful death case itself, they can be obtained as part of the estate’s damages. If the estate obtains such damages, the Administrator will divide the damage award among the heirs-at-law.

As we have posted before, in a wrongful death context, the heirs-at-law have a claim for damages for the full value of the life of the decedent whereas the Administrator of the estate has a claim for pre-death damages. In some cases involving serious injury, the injured individual may live for a time prior to death. If, in such a hypothetical case, the individual incurs substantial medical expenses and experiences significant pain and suffering prior to death, the estate of such a decedent is the proper legal entity that brings these claims. The claim is brought in the name of the Administrator or Administratrix of the estate, not the estate itself and the claim is brought, not for the full value of the life of the decedent, but rather for damages unique to the estate, which includes burial expenses, funeral expenses, medical expenses and any conscious pain and suffering experienced prior to death. Thus, in any wrongful death case in Georgia there are typically two claims which are brought, one by the heirs-at-law and one by the Administrator/Administratrix of the estate as the damages that are sought by each are unique under Georgia law.

This entry is written in tribute to a little known non-profit association called Voices Insisting On Pursuit Safety. VIPS is a group of dedicated volunteers who are trying to save lives through their work. Each of the members of this group unfortunately have experienced tragedies in their own lives typically as a result of a police pursuit gone bad. The board members of Voices Insisting On Pursuit Safety are those who have lost loved ones in tragic police pursuits where there was a reckless disregard of proper police procedure in the decision to either initiate the pursuit and/or recklessly continue the same in the face of dangerous circumstances, resulting in the death of an innocent family member caught up by happenstance in the chase. Their family members were innocent victims who just happened to be at the wrong place and the wrong time.
It is a little known fact that three innocent people per week die during high speed pursuits. This is far more than are shot with police firearms. Indeed, police pursuits are the most dangerous activity engaged in by law enforcement. When the police chase a murderer or rapist, then they are doing their job in trying to apprehend a dangerous suspect that poses a danger to all members of the public. Proper police procedure requires that the police chase such suspects because the risk to the public is great if they are not immediately apprehended. The analysis completely is different, however, when dealing with those who are suspected of having committed non-violent misdemeanors or mere traffic violations. To chase such suspects at speeds in excess of 90 or 100 miles an hour in an urban setting makes no sense because in such pursuits it is foreseeable that an innocent member of the motoring public could be seriously injured or killed. Indeed, data collected on a yearly basis proves that over 500 people per year are killed in this country during dangerous police pursuits.
Over the ten (10) years of the war in Afghanistan our country has lost three thousand (3,000) soldiers. Five thousand (5,000) people have been killed over the last ten (10) years in dangerous police pursuits. Once every eleven (11) weeks a police officer is killed, not to mention the three (3) innocent people per week on average killed during police pursuits. VIPS laments the loss of innocent life, including law enforcement officers whose work it greatly values, and hopes through its work to save innocent lives (including those of law enforcement) through public educational outreach.
The typical case that Voices Insisting On Pursuit Safety tries to address is the case where the police are pursuing a non-violent suspect under extremely dangerous circumstances. If the police are pursuing a traffic violator or some alleged misdemeanor violator (such as a shoplifter) in an urban area at speeds greatly in excess of the posted limit, it is foreseeable that an innocent person simply at the wrong place at the wrong time could be crashed into either by the fleeing suspect’s vehicle or the police. This happens all too often with the result that five hundred (500) people per year are killed in this country (on average) during high speed pursuits. Finally one-third (1/3) of these, on a conservative estimate, are completely innocent, unconnected to the chase. Others in this number are police officers involved in the chase. They die chasing non-violent suspects. The price is too great to them and to other innocent third parties.

Continue reading

Another Police Chase: More Deaths
We read last week on the internet of a tragic story out of Parsons, Kansas. Unfortunately, the Kansas story is all too familiar and occurs each and every day in this country. What we refer to are dangerous and reckless police chase cases which regrettably and tragically all too often result in the deaths of innocent members of the public, unconnected to the chase, who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The report we read out of Parsons, Kansas was one such occurrence.
On July 16, 2009, a young man was being pursued allegedly for suspicion of drunk driving when during the high speed pursuit he ran through an intersection at a high rate of speed killing a mother and her daughter in a horrific collision. The mother survived a few days in the hospital prior to her death and the 13-year old daughter was killed leaving the husband and father grief stricken for the rest of his life. Undoubtedly, the fleeing suspect was the primary culprit for this and due to his mistake in fleeing from the police at high speeds he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the deaths he caused by his actions. However, in this case, as in many other police chase cases, the conduct of the police must also be scrutinized.
The country’s leading expert on the dangers associated with high speed pursuits is Professor Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina. Professor Alpert oftentimes has commented upon the wisdom of pursuing suspected drunk drivers during high speed pursuits. The rhetorical question he asks is: Which is more dangerous, a drunk driver or a drunk driver being chased at speeds as high as 100 miles per hour? Obviously, a drunk driver being impaired is dangerous but to increase the danger to the public by chasing a drunk driver at high speeds is obviously even more dangerous and can result in the loss of innocent life as happened in Parsons, Kansas.

Continue reading

As we have posted before, in Georgia the measure of damages is the full value of the life of the decedent. The full value of the life of the decedent is comprised of the economic value of the deceased’s normal life expectancy and the non-economic loss sustained at the time of the wrongful death. As to the non-economic component, this includes the joy of living itself, the loss of society, affection and companionship of a wife, children and other family members and generally what the decedent lost at the time of their death.
A young person losses more life experiences than does an older person who has already experienced a long life span. Thus, typically, a younger person’s claim for wrongful death is economically more valuable than is an other persons under the rationale that the longer one would have lived had they not wrongfully lost their life the greater the damage to the deceased.
Again, Georgia law is unique because damages are measured from the standpoint of what the decedent lost not what the decedent’s survivors lost. In many states, the measure of damages is from the standpoint of the survivors. What did they lose when the decedent died? How much of his income did they lose? How much of his society and affection did they lose? In Georgia, on the other hand, the measure is based on what the decedent him or herself lost. Either way, the damages are left to the sole discretion of fair and impartial jurors seeking to do justice in a case where someone has wrongfully been killed and lost their life.

In determining the economic value of a deceased’s life in Georgia, a jury is not bound by any fixed criteria in reaching its verdict. A Georgia jury may take into consideration the decedent’s age at the time of his/her death, heredity, health, physical condition, habits, character, education, prior earning capacity, the amount of money he or she was earning at the time of his death, any reasonable probability of increase or decrease or reduction in wages or salary, loss of employment, the probability of the decedent working or failing to work voluntarily in the future, the decedent’s life expectancy and any other evidence which would assist the jury in determining the decedent’s future earning capacity. Because all of these issues are left to the enlightened conscience of fair and impartial jurors, it is necessary that plaintiff’s counsel produce evidence from which a jury can consider all of these factors. Again, typically tax returns and pay stubs are used for earners to show what was earned. Evidence as to the age of the decedent, their life expectancy, the education and background are also components of the economic portion of a wrongful death claim. While the value of a life is, obviously, far more important than one’s earning capacity, nonetheless, a jury will be instructed that it may consider both economic and non-economic components in rendering its verdict in a wrongful death claim in Georgia. As to the economic component, again, either an economist can be employed or the Annuity Mortality Table can be utilized to show the life expectancy of the decedent and what their probable lost earnings would have been.

The economic value of a wrongful death claim in Georgia is typically based upon lifetime earnings or the economic value of lifetime services. In a wrongful death case, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence the age of the decedent when he/she died, probable life expectance and yearly income or the value of such services. From such evidence a jury can compute the gross cash value of the deceased’s economic losses based on remaining life expectancy.
In a hypothetical case where a 25-year old person dies making $30,000.00 per year at a minimum, based on their education and experience, one would anticipate that the wrongful death caused 40 years of lost earnings because typically people work from age 25 to 65 before they retire. Taking into consideration that the deceased would likely receive raises in pay over time based upon the occupation or field they were in, a jury could compute 40 years times the amount of money they were expected to make, then reduce it to its present cash value in making an economic award for wrongful death damages. Again, the computation is left to the jury, but the jury could consider the earnings of the decedent prior to death in making its calculations as to the economic component of the wrongful death claim.
Many lawyers employ economists to assist the jury in understanding the economic component of this portion of a Georgia wrongful death claim. When dealing with a housewife an economist can assist a jury in understanding the value of such services that might be rendered over the life of the decedent. In dealing with a child or a younger individual with a limited or no earnings history, an economist can also be helpful in this regard. For those who do have an earning record, tax returns, pay stubs and other similar evidence can be used to prove to the jury what could have been earned, extrapolated over the remaining life expectancy, for a total economic wrongful death award. Again, such an award is only for the economic portion of the claim and not for the non-economic portion of a wrongful death action in Georgia.

Among all the 50 states Georgia law is unique because it measures damages in a wrongful death case from the viewpoint of what the deceased lost, not what his or her survivors lost. Under Georgia law, the measure of damages in a wrongful death case is “the full value of the life of the decedent.” See O.C.G.A. §§ 51-4-1(1) and 51-4-4.
The full value of the life of the decedent under Georgia law has two components. First, the economic value of the deceased’s normal life expectancy must be assessed and second, an intangible element, incapable of exact proof, which is measured only by “the enlightened conscious of a jury.” As to the non-economic component of a wrongful death claim, this is, again, measured from the standpoint of the decedent. What did he or she lose at the time of their death? This includes not only the society and affection they lost but also what they had to look forward to in their life, how many years of living they would have otherwise experienced and was taken from them. In future entries on this subject, we will focus on the two elements of a claim for wrongful damages in Georgia. While wrongful death actions arise in a variety of contexts, whether it be automobile accidents, tractor-trailer collisions, product liability claims, medical malpractice lawsuits or otherwise, the measure of damages for a wrongful death is the same: the full value of the life of the decedent. Initially, we will blog on the economic component and thereafter we will blog on the non-economic component of these claims.

Here in Georgia, due to the doctrine of Sovereign Immunity, as we have posted before, it is very difficult to sue a local government employee. If a government employee commits a tort against an innocent third party and that person wishes to file a claim against the government employee, the government employee cannot be sued in his or her official capacity unless the employer of the government employee has waived its sovereign immunity. This is because any claim against the employee in his or her official capacity is considered by the Courts in Georgia to be equivalent to a claim against the government itself. Thus, absent a waiver of sovereign immunity, which is quite limited, there will be no claim against the employee in his or her official capacity.
If an employee is not acting within the scope of their discretionary authority and violates a ministerial duty, or acts with actual malice or intent to cause injury, or acts completely outside the scope of their employment, they can be held individually liable for torts against innocent third parties. There are a lot of qualifications in the law in this regard and it is not always easy to determine what constitutes a discretionary act as opposed to a ministerial duty. As long as there is a policy or procedure in place, which requires the execution of a simple task with definitive guidelines for the execution of that task, there is at least an argument to be made that the duty is ministerial in nature and therefore if the employee, by virtue of failing to perform such tasks, negligently causes harm to an innocent third party, then in that event, a valid claim can be asserted against the government employee individually. Otherwise, any claim against a government employee will be barred by the doctrine of Official Immunity because a government employee cannot be sued for discretionary acts performed in the course of their duties. One limited exception to this are automobile tort claims where there is a limited waiver of immunity. As might be expected, whether an employee can be successfully sued in an individual capacity is a factually specific inquiry.

Contact Information