WHAT TYPES OF COMPENSATION CAN BE RECOVERED IN A WRONGFUL DEATH ACCIDENT?

Early civilized man placed into his laws a schedule for the life of a human being who had been wrongfully killed.  That schedule of a person’s worth was based on that person’s status and value.  Generally, a slave was worth half of an ordinary freeman.  Ancient Germans recognized a compensation system known as “weregeld” which was adopted by the Anglo Saxons.  The death of a landowner was to be compensated with 200 shillings.  A freeman who did not own land was slightly less than 100.  A member of the clergy was 300 shillings, but if he was giving mass at the time he was wrongfully killed, 400 shillings.  Weregeld (or rather, the failure to provide weregeld) is mentioned twice in the classic Beowulf, and a person in the Lord of the Rings actually came into possession of the fabled ring as payment for weregeld.

Today, compensation is based on what is proved as a loss.  There are two types of losses depending on whether the deceased survived his injury.  Under the “survival action” of Civil Code Article 2315.1, relatives within the priority classification can recover the deceased’s losses incurred after the injury and prior to the injury-related death.  For instance, the deceased will almost always incur medical expenses in connection with his injury and prior to his ultimate death.  The wrongdoer must pay for this.  The loved ones may also recover wages or earnings that the deceased would have earned had it not been for their injury.  Damages for pain and suffering are only recoverable only for conscious pain and suffering, even if it just for a moment.

In reviewing a jury’s award of pain and suffering for deceased who only suffered briefly, an appellate court reversed the jury’s award.  There, the decedent fell from a height of over 60 feet when a rebar cage collapsed. He was found lying face down and was breathing when the first person arrived to assist him. He died at the scene shortly thereafter. There is no evidence in the record that decedent was conscious at the scene. The court found that the jury award of $250,000 for the decedent’s physical pain and suffering before his death is abusively high.  The court agreed that the decendent would have been frightfully aware that he was likely to die or suffer serious injury when the rebar cage started its descent. The court stated, “While pre-impact fear is compensable, we deem the jury’s award of $250,000 for terror during the fall and $500,000 for mental anguish after the fall, but prior to his death, to be so excessive as to constitute an abuse of the jury’s discretion.”  Based on their review of the jurisprudence and the facts, the court determined “that the highest amount to be reasonably within the jury’s discretion for survival damages in this case is $300,000. Thus, we will decrease the award for survival damages from $1 million to $300,000.

Under the “wrongful death action” of Civil Code Article 2315.2, relatives with priority classification can recover loss of love, affection, companionship, support, and funeral expenses.  In a recent case, an appellate court reviewed a jury award of$3,500,000.00 to the spouse for the loss of love and affection for her husband of nine years.  The court of appeals reduced that award to $750,000.00.  To each of the decedent’s two minor children, the jury awarded $3,000,000.00 each, but the court of appeals reduced that to $450,000.00.

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