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Placing a monetary value on human life is rarely an easy task, but courts and juries are presented with especially difficult tasks when a senior citizen or child dies due to negligence. 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.
, courts and juries Before confronting issues of income potential and emotional suffering
Once a party has been found liable in a wrongful death case, courts and juries may then turn to what is an equitable amount to award the plaintiff. Relevant evidence may include health care records and funeral bills, for instance. In the case of a child, a court might only look at the child’s past financial contributions and anticipated future earnings. This generally means that the damages awarded in wrongful death lawsuits involving children and the elderly are often far lower than those involving a working adult.
Calculating the damages in wrongful death cases involving children is a subjective process. An adult’s earning potential can be established by looking at tax returns and career trajectory. But for a child, this can be far more difficult. This is especially true when children die before their talents and abilities have emerged, and their paths have become clear.
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 used to determine damages in these situations include:
In some states, the death of an unborn fetus is not 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. Parties found to have caused the death of a fetus may also face criminal charges under the provisions of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, passed by Congress in 2004.
The damages awarded in wrongful death cases involving senior citizens are typically less as the victims are no longer earning a paycheck. It is generally assumed that retired individuals earn less money than working people and have fewer opportunities for financial gain. This can reduce compensation awards due to lesser expected future earnings.
In cases of gross negligence, or when civil 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, some state courts 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. 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.