This is Part I of a discussion concerning what damages are available in Georgia wrongful death cases. Part II will be published next week.
Wrongful death claims in Georgia are typically divided into two separate claims: (1) the wrongful death per se as measured by the “full value of the life of the decedent” without deducting for any of the necessary or personal expenses of the decedent had he or she lived; and (2) the estate claims, or the claims that would have accrued to the decedent had they lived and include medical expenses incurred prior to death, funeral and burial expenses, conscious pain and suffering prior to death, and punitive damages.
The “full value of the life of the decedent” is measured from the decedent’s perspective. This is different from many other states which focus on the impact the decedent’s death has on the surviving family members/party plaintiffs. The “full value of the life” concept has two distinct components, one is economic and the other is non-economic. The economic component consists of the “items having a proven monetary value, such as lost potential lifetime earnings, income, or services, reduced to present cash value.” The non-economic portion comprises those “intangible items whose value cannot be precisely quantified, such as a parent’s “society, advice, example and counsel . . . .” Consol. Freightways Corp. of Delaware v. Futrell, 201 Ga. App. 233, 233 (1991).
The economic component will likely be the more straightforward of the two to arrive at. Prior earnings, disability benefits, pensions, social security benefits, and mortality tables to determine life expectancy are a few of the more obvious components used to determine the decedent’s future income and, thus, the economic value of the decedent’s life. If the decedent is a child this exercise becomes more difficult since there is not a past record of earnings which can be used to project future earnings. In these circumstances, it can be advisable to retain an expert economist to testify on probable career paths and future earnings.
The second component, i.e., the non-economic or “intangible” part of the decedent’s life, is less straightforward and will require a practitioner to paint a three-dimensional portrait of the decedent’s life beyond their bank account. Remember, however, the portrait must be from the decedent’s point of view, not his survivors. While necessarily a more subjective exercise than the first, and one rightly left to the “enlightened conscious of the jury,” the jury’s award must still be supported by the evidence. Witnesses can describe the decedent’s life – their community, their church, their family – and the things that brought them happiness – and the jury, “in light of their own experience and knowledge,” will then arrive at a value of what the decedent lost. Id. at 233-35. Ultimately, a strong family is as important to children as well as adults, and a “good home” centered around “family, church, school and community” and institutions like the Girl Scouts are positive factors in determining the “full value” of a child’s life. Childs v. United States, 923 F. Supp. 1570, 1584–85 (S.D. Ga. 1996).
Punitive damages are also available in wrongful death lawsuits. However, any award for punitive damages is not for the wrongful death itself. Instead, it arises out of the decedent’s “injuries and pain and suffering” prior to death and belongs to the estate. Donson Nursing Facilities v. Dixon, 176 Ga. App. 700, 701 (1985). The distinction between a hypothetical punitive damage award connected to the “full value” of the decedent’s life, which is not allowed, and a possible award to the estate in connection to the decedent’s injuries and pain and suffering highlights the importance of determining the proper party for the type of relief you are seeking, as an improper plaintiff will not be able to successfully sue for damages, even if the situation warrants those damages. See Georgia Osteopathic Hosp., Inc. v. O’Neal, 198 Ga. App. 770, 772-73 (1991) (noting that punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death action and the deceased’s children, who had not been appointed as Administers of the estate, lacked standing to pursue damages belonging to the estate).
As noted above, Part II of this blog post will provide a more in-depth analysis of the damages available in a Georgia wrongful death lawsuit.
If you have lost a loved one and feel there may be a potential wrongful death claim, you want to hire an experienced attorney who has filed and brought to trial numerous wrongful death suits. At Finch McCranie, LLP, we dedicate our time to diligently and vigorously representing our clients. With over 50 years of experience handling wrongful death lawsuits in Atlanta and throughout the State of Georgia, our firm has the resources and track record to handle these complex cases. Call for a free consultation at 404-658-9070.