Record $40 Million Verdict In Georgia Wrongful Death Case

Recently, an area man was killed and his wife badly injured when they were involved in a serious trucking accident. The driver of the truck that caused the accident was found guilty of homicide by vehicle.

The driver's employer accepted liability for the accident, and the trial commenced over the amount of damages for the wrongful death. In September of 2011, a jury awarded $40 million in compensation to the survivor because of the accident.

The verdict was a record for Georgia, and surprising, given the lack of punitive damages (damages granted to punish someone for egregious behavior). Here, the damage award was almost entirely compensatory; the majority was for the victims' lost future earnings.

Negligence and Wrongful Death

This case was a wrongful death case, which is a subset of negligence law. Under the common law, there was no right to sue for a death of another. In the U.S., most states have statues that describe who can sue.

In order to have a viable negligence action in Georgia, a person must prove the elements of the tort:

  • the existence of a duty
  • a breach of the duty
  • causation of the injury
  • damages resulting from the breach of the duty

The legal duty is generally to act in such a way as not to create an unreasonable risk of harm to other people. Since the truck driver in this case could not explain why he had driven through the stop sign, the he breached his duty to drive safely, and this is why the case focused on the amount of damages resulting from the death of the husband.

Future Earnings

Georgia is known for its conservative jury awards, and the trucking company was potentially counting on the reluctance of juries to make large awards. However, the problem for this company was the fact that the individual who was killed in the accident was a very successful businessman.

In Georgia, the Wrongful Death Act allows a spouse or child to recover "the full value of the life of the decedent without deducting for any of the necessary or personal expenses of the decedent had he lived."

The "full value of the life" is calculated by adding the economic value (usually, earning capacity) to the value of other noneconomic items that the person would have accrued had they lived their actuarial life expectancy.

Courts in Georgia have said the economic value is typically based on "lost potential lifetime earnings, income, or services, reduced to present cash value, or lost intangible items whose value cannot be precisely quantified, such as a parent's "society, advice, example and counsel ..." as determined by the enlightened conscience of the jury."

Items a court considers in the calculation of economic damages include actual earnings, pensions, retirement plan income, social security payments, and other similar items.

Appeal Likely

According to court documents, the man had earned $467,000 per year in the five years before his death. He also had set in motion deals that resulted in his company receiving contracts to sell ammunition to Wal-mart's 3,200 stores.

These deals would have increased his personal annual income of $1.8 million per year, and this figure was apparently used by the jury to reach the $28.7 million award for lost earnings.

The trucking company has indicated they will appeal the verdict, as their motions in the case claimed much of the future income projection was based on speculation, due to the amount of time that elapsed between the death and the completion of those deals that would have increased income.

The outcome of the appeal will hinge on how the court decides the question of how much influence the decedent had on creating the deals.

Courts in other jurisdictions have said, "Awards for future lost income are inherently speculative and intrinsically insusceptible of being calculated with mathematical certainty, thus the courts must exercise sound judicial discretion to determine these awards."

If, in the exercise of "sound judicial discretion" the court decides the deal was tenuous at the time of death, it may agree with a New York court that described a similar situation as "uncertain, dependent on future changeable events and, thus, inherently speculative. Such a loss is not compensable." Attorneys for the victim will attempt to demonstrate that the deal was essentially finished at the time of death.

If you have been injured in an motor vehicle accident or have suffered the loss of a loved one due to the negligence of others, speak to an experienced personal injury attorney in your area. You may be able to receive compensation for your loss.