At a moment’s notice, the life of a loved one may be extinguished under horrific circumstances due to the fault of others. Between hectic traffic, new construction projects, and all manner of social activity, we all subject ourselves to the risk associated with any interaction in today’s world. Thus, it is crucial to understand the responsibilities of others and hold them accountable when their mistakes result in the death of another.
The attorneys at Joel Thrift Law have years of experience handling some of the most complicated Georgia wrongful death claims imaginable. Our experienced legal staff will investigate the facts surrounding the death of your loved one and work to secure compensation on their behalf.
What is a Wrongful Death Claim?
A wrongful death claim is a civil cause of action filed against a person or legal entity accused of causing another person’s death. Typically, the surviving family members or estate of the deceased files a wrongful death claim against the accused person or party.
Unlike criminal cases involving murder or manslaughter, where criminal prosecutors charge a person to determine culpability and impose criminal punishment, a wrongful death lawsuit seeks monetary damages from the liable party. However, the surviving family members may simultaneously pursue compensation from the party responsible for their loved one’s death while a criminal case is pending.
Common Causes for Wrongful Death
A wrongful death can be caused by various circumstances, which can depend on the time and location of the person’s death, the occupation of the decedent, and the role or occupation of the responsible parties involved. Below is a common, but not exhaustive, list of wrongful deaths:
- Motor vehicle accidents.
- Pedestrian and bicycle accidents.
- Drowning and boating accidents.
- Aviation accidents.
- Injuries resulting from medical malpractice.
- Nursing home and hospice care negligence.
- Poising accidents.
- Product liability cases.
- Construction worksite accidents.
- Industrial chemical and waste exposure.
- Premises liability cases.
- Workplace injuries.
- Criminal homicide (murder, manslaughter, etc.).
Understanding Georgia’s Wrongful Death Statute
Like many states, Georgia has codified into the general outline of a wrongful death claim covered under Georgia law. The includes provisions on the circumstances of the death to justify a wrongful death claim, the applicable surviving family members that may bring a wrongful death claim, and how to access compensation for the resulting death.
Parties that can File a Georgia Wrongful Death Claim
Under O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2, the surviving spouse or children of the decedent may recover the total value of the life of the deceased spouse or parent. Furthermore, the statute includes three scenarios where a wrongful death claim may continue to be pursued in the event that the initiating spouse or child can no longer continue to bring the claim:
- Scenario 1: if the surviving spouse dies during the wrongful death action, the case may be continued to be pursued by the surviving child or children of the decedent.
- Scenario 2: if one of the surviving children that bring forth a wrongful death action dies, the action may continue to be pursued by one or more surviving children.
- Scenario 3: if the only surviving child is a minor and there is no surviving spouse, the guardian of the surviving child may continue the action and utilize the damage award for the child’s benefit until the child can receive the remaining funds upon becoming an adult.
Disagreements about Pursuing a Wrongful Death Claim
Unfortunately, Georgia’s wrongful death statute can be unforgiving if multiple parties disagree about how to address the wrongful death of a family member. Conflict often occurs when the surviving spouse wishes to address the case in one way while the surviving child or children wish to pursue the case in another way. Under O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(c), the surviving spouse may release from civil liability the party responsible for the death of the loved one without the agreement of the surviving child or children.
Statute of Limitations for Georgia Wrongful Death Claims
Under O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33, all civil actions related to injuries to a person must be brought within precisely two years of the date the accident occurred. However, the two-year statute of limitations may be stalled (also known as “tolled”) depending on other circumstances related to the case. Georgia law allows a civil wrongful death action to be tolled for pending criminal actions or traffic violations.
Regarding criminal violations, the statute of limitations to file a wrongful death action does not commence until the criminal proceedings for the underlying criminal charge have ended. For example, if a person was killed because of the misuse of construction equipment, and the wrongdoer was charged with a crime, the wrongdoer’s case must conclude before the statute of limitations could begin. Regarding traffic violations, the criminal case of an at-fault driver must conclude, or six years must pass, which occurs sooner, for the wrongful death statute of limitations to commence.
Understanding Damage Awards for a Georgia Wrongful Death Claim
The purpose of a wrongful death action is to recover damages resulting in the death of the loved one. Many wrongful death attorneys are incredibly sympathetic to the hardship our clients face after the death of a loved one. Attorneys realize that no amount of money can bring back the loss of a loved one. Nonetheless, many families have enormous expenses resulting from a family member’s death and seek compensation to address that loss.
“Full Value of the Life” Standard under Brock v. Wendicamp
Under the Georgia Wrongful Death statute, recovery of damages resulting from the death of a loved one is measured by the “full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence.” This standard was defined by the 2002 case Brock v. Wedincamp, 253 Ga. App. 275, 281-82 (2002), which found that a jury must determine the value of a human life based on the perspective of the person that has died–not what that life was worth to the surviving family members.
Types of Wrongful Damage Awards
Damage awards for a wrongful action can be divided into two fundamental forms of damages: tangible and intangible. Both damage award standards are described below.
The tangible aspect of life, as calculated via a wrongful death damage award, encompasses the economic value of a person’s life. This is determined by evidence submitted during the wrongful death action that includes the following calculations:
- Current and future earning potential via employment
- Current and future earning potential via certain investments and securities, like the cost of a life insurance policy, pensions, and other annuities
- Other tangible activities like child-rearing, daily chores and activities, and providing physical support for the surviving family members
The aspect of valuing a life in the context of a wrongful death claim is the intangible value of a life. This can be a little harder to calculate because it considers the subjective aspect of life, unlike the more tangible economic elements. Examples of intangible values of life include:
- Quality time spent with family.
- The emotional contribution of a parent in child-rearing.
- Activities involved in the community.
- Life achievements like graduating from school, giving birth, and retiring.
- General life participation and enjoyment.
Division of the Damage Award
O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(d) outlines the division of a wrongful death damage award amongst the surviving family members. Under Section (d)(1), the damage award is divided equally amongst the surviving and the children per capita, which means everyone must get an equal share of the damage award.
However, under Section (d)(2), the surviving spouse, if one exists, must receive at least one-third of the damage calculation. This means that regardless of the number of children, the surviving spouse must receive at least one-third of the funds, with the remaining two-thirds divided equally amongst the children. Further, the children of any deceased children may receive their portion of the deceased child’s share of the damages split equally amongst them.
What is the Difference Between a Wrongful Death Claim and an Estate Claim?
As explained above, a wrongful death claim seeks compensation for the tangible and intangible loss of a person’s life and the contribution to their family and community. However, wrongful death claims do not account for the immediate expenses most families incur from losing a loved one. Thus, Georgia law also allows for the filing of a separate legal action for monetary damages: the estate claim.
An estate claim allows the surviving family to file against the party alleged to have been responsible for the death of the loved one to seek monetary damages resulting from the death of the person–typically, pain and suffering damages. In this context, pain and suffering damages can include:
- The suffering incurred by the decedent before their death.
- Bills for medical care and treatment resulting from injuries sustained that later caused death.
- Expenses for end-of-life care and funeral costs.
Unlike wrongful death actions, the party allowed to bring an estate claim action for a wrongful death depends on the existence of a will or other estate planning instrument at the time of the decedent’s death. The assigned administrator of the estate may bring an action on behalf of the estate. Alternatively, if a person died intestate (without a lawful estate planning instrument), Georgia’s estate laws govern to determine which surviving family member is the best suited to control the estate.
Can Surviving Family Seek Punitive Damages for the Wrongful Death?
Yes and no. A legal action pursued under the wrongful death statute is eligible for punitive damages. However, specific personal injury claims, including wrongful death actions under the theory of an estate case, may be eligible for punitive damages under a particular set of circumstances.
Wrongful death estate cases are eligible for punitive damages based on a showing that the liable party’s actions were intentional, malicious, or showed a callous disregard for human life. For example, the estate of the decedent may not pursue punitive damages against a liable party for the accidental misuse of a firearm at a gun range. However, the decedent’s estate may seek punitive damages against a responsible party for discharging a firearm at a residential home during a party to intentionally cause harm to another.
What to Expect from a Damage Award for a Wrongful Death Claim?
It is difficult to calculate the average damage calculation for a wrongful death claim in Georgia. For starters, not every wrongful death claim ends with a published jury award. Many wrongful death claims settle well before the parties enter a courtroom. Further, every wrongful death is vastly different than the next.
Depending on the person that was killed, the circumstances of the death, and the surviving family, every case poses unique factors that can sway the final damage calculation. Nonetheless, it is our experience that many wrongful death claims result in seven or eight-figure awards, which results in millions or tens of millions of dollars for the surviving family.
For example, NBC News reported in 2022 a jury award worth $77 million in damages. The case revolved around a Georgia man that was killed while walking on the Georgia interstate at night after being released from an addiction treatment center days prior. The man was reported to be suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. The family filed suit against the facility and several staff members charged with the man’s care. The jury awarded the family $55 million for the value of the man’s life, $10 million for the man’s pain and suffering, and an additional $1 million in punitive damages plus attorneys fees.
Pursuing a Wrongful Death Claim on Behalf of a Deceased Child
Although the Georgia wrongful death statute does not reference unmarried children as potential decedents to pursue a wrongful death action, parents can still bring them under Georgia law. Both biological parents can file a joint against a responsible party or parties for the death of a child. Further, if both parents are living but separated at the time of the child’s death, one parent may bring the action. However, if one parent succeeds in their wrongful death action, the recovering parent must attempt to locate and provide one-half of the damage award to the other parent.
If only the parent is living, the sole parent will recover and keep all of the damage awarded. If a child is devoid of both biological parents, the child’s legal guardian may pursue a wrongful death claim on behalf of the child’s estate.
Hiring an Atlanta, Georgia Wrongful Death Attorney
Families that have recently suffered the wrongful death of a beloved family member often find themselves dealing with a traumatic and confusing loss. The abrupt nature of a wrongful death can leave a family lost and overwhelmed, which is why it is essential to understand the rights a family has to pursue a wrongful death claim. This starts by understanding a wrongful death attorney’s roles and services when pursuing a wrongful action.
An experienced Atlanta, Georgia wrongful death attorney understands the tools and strategies necessary to represent their client effectively. Typical services include the following.
Investigation and Evidence Gathering
The first step in any wrongful death case is to consult with the client and commence an investigation of the facts. Typically, clients will meet with an attorney to discuss the circumstances of their loved one’s passing and provide documentation of the incident that led to their death.
Crafting a Legal Strategy
During an investigation, an attorney will start formulating a strategy for addressing the wrongful death. Namely, this can include identifying the parties the attorney believes to be responsible for the death of the client’s loved one. Although how a person died is clear, the responsible party or parties are often more challenging to identify.
Once it is clear that a wrongful death suit should be filed, the attorney will draft and submit the lawsuit via a complaint. The complaint will include a summary of the facts and law, and the attorney will have to file in court and serve notice to the opposing parties. Once the complaint has been filed, both parties will engage in motion practice and address factual, legal, and procedural issues. The parties also engage in discovery, which consists of deposing witnesses and trading document evidence of the incident.
Once it becomes apparent that both sides of a case cannot reach a settlement, the parties commence a civil trial. Similar to many courtroom dramas, a trial consists of open and closing statements, examination of witnesses, and introduction of physical evidence. Most trials are straightforward and rarely offer any surprises to either side.
In most cases, a wrongful death case will never reach trial. These days, parties shy away from the laborious and expensive hassles of going to trial. Instead, parties often engage in a series of conversations before and trial and often come to a resolution. This prevents either side from undergoing the uncertainty of an adverse jury verdict and provides some semblance of closure.
Contact an Atlanta, Georgia Wrongful Death Attorney Today
The attorneys and legal staff at Joel Thrift Law work tirelessly to advocate for our client’s best interests. If a loved one has recently died from a traumatic accident, the family may be entitled to damages resulting in the loved one’s wrongful death. Schedule a free consultation today utilizing our convenient online form.