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Placing a monetary value on human life is rarely an easy process during civil trials, but juries are presented with an especially difficult task when a senior citizen or child has died. The damages awarded in wrongful death cases are largely determined by the income of the victim and his or her expected future earnings. However, this compensation can be scant for the parents of children who were killed before they entered the workforce or the family members of individuals who died after they had already retired. When faced with the alleged wrongful death of a child or senior citizen, the courts follow certain principles when dealing with the sensitive and potentially contentious matter of financial compensation. When following these principles does not result in an equitable outcome, the courts in some states may also award punitive damages if the defendant's actions were grossly negligent or malicious.
Before confronting the thorny issues of income potential and emotional suffering in wrongful death cases, juries examine documents that can help them come up with an appropriate compensation amount. These documents may include health care records, funeral bills, and insurance estimates. When an adult is killed in an accident caused by the negligent actions of others, juries consider the companionship and support he or she provided to the plaintiff as well as the amount of money he or she earned. Yet, these factors are not weighed when a child’s life has been lost. This is because parents do not rely on their children for support in the same way that their children rely on them. In these situations, only the child’s past financial contributions and anticipated future earnings are considered. This means that the damages awarded in wrongful death lawsuits involving children and the elderly are often far lower than when a working adult has been killed.
Judges like the facts to be clear and arguments to be supported by compelling evidence, but calculating the damages in wrongful death cases involving children is a subjective and nebulous process. While an adult’s earning potential may be easy to judge by simply studying his or her tax returns and career trajectory, determining how much a child would earn in the workplace is far more difficult. This is especially true when children die before their talents and abilities have emerged, and their paths have become clear. These arguments can become particularly heated when the child victim was a prodigy or excelled at sports and could have gone on to play professionally. Courts must also consider that performing well in school does not always lead to success in later life. For help with untangling these issues, juries often turn to work-life expectancy tables to get a better idea of how much a child would have earned as an adult. The factors studied to determine damages in these situations include:
In some states, the death of an unborn fetus would not be a valid justification for taking legal action. The law has struggled to come to grips with the issue of when life begins, and many states have determined that this occurs at birth rather than conception. However, some states have passed laws addressing this issue that allow wrongful death litigation to be initiated by the parents of an unborn child providing that the fetus was viable at the time of the accident. Negligent individuals who cause the death of a fetus may also face criminal charges under the provisions of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which was passed by Congress in 2004.
The damages awarded in wrongful death cases are also sometimes meager when the victims are elderly and no longer earn a paycheck. It is generally assumed that retired individuals earn less money than working people and have fewer opportunities for financial gain, and their children may no longer turn to them for advice or comfort during difficult times. This reduces compensation awards because future earnings and the day-to-day contributions that were made by accident victims are the primary considerations when calculating damages in these cases.
In cases of gross negligence, or when civil lawsuit defendants have acted maliciously, juries may choose to award punitive as well as compensatory damages. However, the laws in some states do not allow this type of award in wrongful death cases. When punitive damages are not specifically allowed or disallowed by state laws, the courts have generally held that they are permissible. Punitive damages are awarded to punish negligent individuals and deter others from behaving in the same way. In recent years, courts in some parts of the country have taken the amount awarded in compensatory damages into consideration when assessing punitive damages. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to establish a firm set of guidelines for judges in such situations to use, but they have urged the courts to focus on equitable compensatory-to-punitive damage ratios and reprehensibility when making these decisions. Punitive damages could be a factor in several wrongful death scenarios, such as:
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified wrongful death lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local wrongful death attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.