In a Georgia wrongful death lawsuit, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia certified two questions to the Georgia Supreme Court. It asked whether the damages that could be recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by a decedent’s survivors were restricted by a settlement entered into by the decedent’s guardian in a prior personal injury lawsuit settling all claims that could have been brought in the suit. If this question was answered in the affirmative, the lower court also asked what components or wrongful death damages would be barred in Georgia.
The case arose when a woman was involved in a car accident in 1992. She went into a coma due to a head injury from the accident. As her legal guardian, her husband sued the car manufacturer and another for the injuries. The plaintiff claimed that there was a defective seatbelt latch and door-locking mechanism and that these caused her injuries.
The jury tried the case, but before it came back with a verdict, the manufacturer and plaintiff entered into a high-low settlement agreement. This guaranteed that there would be a recovery for the plaintiff in case there was a verdict for the manufacturer but limited the manufacturer’s exposure in case the jury found for the plaintiff. The jury found for the plaintiff, awarding $30 million for pain and suffering, over $400,000 for medical expenses already incurred, and $6 million for future care and living expenses.
The manufacturer paid what was owed under the agreement. The plaintiff executed a written release that incorporated the settlement agreement. The manufacturer specifically denied liability for the accident and with an exception the plaintiff released the manufacturer from all damages and claims that arose from the accident.
The manufacturer specifically denied liability for the accident. In response, the plaintiff released the manufacturer for claims and damages. The personal injury lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. During this time, the husband knew that the wife’s coma was permanent and that she was permanently and totally disabled.
Over 20 years later, the wife died. She’d never awoken from her coma. The husband and his kids filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the manufacturer asking damages for the total value of her life. The federal district court removed the case and the manufacturer moved for partial summary judgment.
The manufacturer argued that the release in the personal injury lawsuit prevented plaintiffs in the wrongful death lawsuit from getting damages other than funeral expenses. The district court sided with the manufacturer initially because the wife had been permanently disabled at the time of the lawsuit. However, it reconsidered because it was uncertain as to what extent the earlier personal injury settlement limited damages in the wrongful death lawsuit in Georgia. It certified the questions to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Under OCGA § 51-4-2 (a), a surviving spouse or child can bring a wrongful death claim and recover for the homicide of a spouse or parent the full value of the decedent’s life. The appellate court noted that it was difficult to determine the proper measure of damages under this law. It explained that the cause of action for wrongful death belongs to the survivors of the decedent and benefits them, but the measure of damages in wrongful death lawsuits is similar to what it was in personal injury actions. A wrongful death extends the right of action for personal injury.
The Court ruled that because the wrongful death claim in this suit derived completely from the personal injury claim, the survivors could only recover damages that the decedent could have recovered if she’d asserted the claim. Moreover, the decedent had fully settled her personal injury claim through her husband and guardian and released the company. She could not again recover the full value of her life measured from the date of injury.
The plaintiffs argued the wrongful death damages were distinct. The Court explained that the wrongful death damages and personal injury damages overlapped and that double recovery was impermissible. The components of damages that are barred are those that could be recovered or were recovered in the personal injury lawsuit. The Court ruled there were no economic damages left to recover in the wrongful death lawsuit. However, it did not find that the decedent’s life in a coma had zero monetary value and determined that whatever residual value her life had to her while she was in a coma should be litigated in district court.
If a loved one is seriously injured in a car accident, and it is possible he or she will pass away as a result of the injuries, it is critical to retain an experienced wrongful death attorney that understands the implications of filing suit. Stephen M. Ozcomert has more than 20 years of experience representing clients who have been injured in car accidents in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. He can help you decide which defendants to pursue. Call us today at (404) 370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.
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