The Legal Measure of Damages in Georgia Wrongful Death Lawsuits
The official code of Georgia, O.C.G.A. § 51-4-1 governs the measure of damages in a Georgia wrongful death case and states, in pertinent part: ” [The] Full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence means 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.” While the measure of damages for wrongful death varies by state, Georgia is unique in that the laws of Georgia allow for damages to be calculated based on the value of the decedent’s life to him. With this in mind, it follows that the measure of damages in a Georgia wrongful death lawsuit are the same as those calculated in a negligence case in which the injured victim survives but is rendered permanently disabled by the negligence. The only exception, obviously, is that the wrongful death litigant cannot recover for future medical and living expenses, since they are no longer living. The full value of life is made up of 2 categories: (1) the economic value of the deceased person’s normal life expectancy and; (2) and “an intangible element incapable of exact proof.” (See, Peeler v. Central of Georgia Railway Co., 163 Ga. 784 (1927). When the jury considers the evidence of the decedent’s life from the decedent’s perspective to determine what he lost rather than from the perspective of what the plaintiff’s loss was, the value is not what the decedent would place on his life. Any charge by the Judge to the jury, should make clear that the value of the life is not that which the decedent would place on his or her own life, but the value is, in fact, based upon what the decedent lost. While, from a practical perspective, this may seem like a distinction without a meaningful difference, it is important that the jury charges accurately reflect the law and the correct methodology that the jurors must employ in calculating damages. Otherwise, one risks a mistrial or the verdict being overturned on appeal. A decedent’s personal expenses (such as income taxes) are not to be considered by the jury when calculating wrongful death damages in Georgia. A properly instructed jury, which returns a substantial verdict in a wrongful death case, will not be overturned or disturbed, absent proof that they were guided by improper considerations.
It might be surprising to learn that punitive damages are not available to in a wrongful death action in Georgia. This is so because the damages are already in the nature of a civil penalty against the defendant and to impose punitive damages in this type of case would be duplicative. Punitive damages are, however, recoverable by the estate in connection with the injuries and pain and suffering endured by the deceased before the death. In other words, if there is proof of “that willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression,” or “that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference for the life of another,” punitive damages can be recovered by the estate of the deceased.
Attorney Robert J. Fleming has been handling wrongful death cases, automobile accident cases, personal injury cases, dental malpractice and medical malpractice lawsuits for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 20 years in and around Atlanta, Georgia and its surrounding areas, including Alpharetta, Austell, Avondale Estates, Chamblee, College Park, Conyers, Duluth, Decatur, Doraville, Hapeville, Johns Creek, Jonesboro, Lawrenceville, Norcross, Peachtree City, Riverdale, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Stone Mountain, and Smyrna. If you have been seriously injured and would like quality legal representation, contact Robert J. Fleming directly on (404) 525-5150 or contact us online.