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Jon Lewis
Jon Lewis
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Alabama Wrongful Death – Something to think about

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In the State of Alabama, the only claim of damages a family has for negligence causing the death of a loved one is a claim for punitive damages. This is defined in Alabama Pattern Jury Instruction 11.18:

In a suit brought for a wrongful act, omission, or negligence causing death the damages recoverable are punitive and not compensatory. Damages in this type of action are entirely punitive, imposed for the preservation of human life and as a deterrent to others to prevent similar wrongs. The amount of damages should be directly related to the amount of wrongdoing on the part of the defendant(s). In assessing damages you are not to consider the pecuniary value of the life of the decedent, for damages in this type of action are not recoverable to compensate the family of the deceased from a pecuniary standpoint on account of her death, nor to compensate the plaintiff for any financial or pecuniary loss sustained by her or the family of the deceased on account of her death.

Your verdict should not be based on sympathy, prejudice, passion or bias, but should be directly related to the culpability of the defendant(s) and necessity of preventing similar wrongs in the future.

There is not claim for the compensation to the family for the loss of the life. If a father, there is no claim for his future lost wages. If a minor, there is not claim for the loss of the ability to hug that minor, to have that minor's companionship, or to have to live with the loss. All of the focus is on the "wrongdoer".

The Supreme Court of Alabama has explained this rationale as follows:

It is settled that under Alabama law (Code 1975, § 6-5-410) the only damages recoverable in a wrongful death action are punitive in nature, determined by the gravity of the wrong done, the propriety of punishing the wrongdoer, and the need for deterring others from committing the same or similar wrongful conduct. Merrell v. Alabama Power Company, 382 So.2d 494 (Ala. 1980); Airheart v. Green, 267 Ala. 689, 104 So.2d 687 (1958).

Furthermore, argument of counsel appealing to the jury for an award of compensation for an individual's death as measured by the material worth of his or her life is improper. Hardin v. Sellers, 270 Ala. 156, 117 So.2d 383 (1960).

The very purpose of punitive damages, then, in a wrongful death context, rests upon the Divine concept that all human life is precious. The language of § 6-5-410 is that recovery may be had for "such damages as the jury may assess." The judicial interpretations of our wrongful death statute have developed this principle: While human life is incapable of translation into a compensatory measurement, the amount of an award of punitive damages may be measured by the gravity of the wrong done, the punishment called for by the act of the wrongdoer, and the need to deter similar wrongs in order to preserve human life. The wisdom of this principle is all too dramatically exemplified by the station in life of Ronnie Joe Cowan. See Geohagan v. General Motors Corporation, 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436 (1973).

Alabama is the ONLY State in the country with this type of law. In every other State, compensatory damages and the value of human life are the measures of damages in addition to punitive damages, if warranted. Imagine an incident where someone unintentionally runs a red light. Should the measure of damages be to punish that person who ran the red light? The person's attorney will argue, "He has been punished enough because he has to live with the fact that he killed someone for the rest of his life." OR, should the measure of damages focus on the family who lost the loved one and their compensation for that loss? If the Defendant has insurance, what's the harm in allowing compensation from that insurance company (which you cannot discuss in court)?

I submit that Alabama is once again last in the country. This time, we are last when it comes to assessing damages in a wrongful death situation. Does Alabama have it right, or do the other 49 states have it right? I wonder.

2 Comments

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  1. fabien gillis says:
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    Surprised how detailed your blog is :) now to get ready to go see the barons

  2. Jon Lewis says:
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    Thank you for your comment. I’m going to give it until 9:30-10:00 and then draw if there is more than one comment.