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What could family ask Disney to Pay in Alabama?

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This is obviously a tragic story all the way around.  However, with tragedy usually comes litigation.  In this case, there are many questions about Disney and what they knew or should have done to prevent the death of this two-year old.  Should they have put up warning signs?  Should they have done something to kill the alligators?  Should they have fenced the beaches and lakes?  Was it even a preventable event?

While all these are good questions and would be left to a Judge and Jury, this article will presume the answer is yes, Disney could have at least made reasonable attempts to prevent this VERY unfortunate event.  So, from that assumption, what would the result be?

Well, typically, the result is money.  When a wrongful death occurs, we cannot bring the person back.  Just as when an injury occurs, we cannot go back to before the injury.  We, as a society, have determined over the course of our history that monetary damages will compensate individuals and families for the deaths of their loved ones – EXCEPT FOR ALABAMA.

In Alabama, wrongful death actions can only pursue punitive, not compensatory damages:

In Alabama, only punitive damages are available in wrongful death actions, and these damages may be awarded against a defendant based on its negligent conduct. The United States Supreme Court approved Alabama’s policy of awarding punitive damages in wrongful death actions in Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Co. v. Yeldell, 274 U.S. 112, 47 S.Ct. 509, 71 L.Ed. 952 (1927). The Court recognized that ‘the purpose of Alabama’s wrongful death act [Homicide Act of Alabama, § 5696, Code of 1923] is to strike at the evil of the negligent destruction of human life’ and concluded: ‘We cannot say that it is beyond the power of a legislature, in effecting such a change in common law rules, to attempt to preserve human life by making homicide expensive.’ 274 U.S. at 116, 47 S.Ct. at 510.

“The protection of the lives of its citizens is certainly a legitimate state interest. By allowing punitive damages to be assessed against defendants in wrongful death actions in a manner different from the way punitive damages are assessed in other civil actions, the legislature has undoubtably recognized that no arbitrary cap can be placed on the value of human life and is ‘attempt [ing] to preserve human life by making homicide expensive.’ 274 U.S. at 116, 47 S.Ct. at 510. The exception of wrongful death actions from legislation imposing caps on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in civil actions bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest that is not prohibited by the Constitution. Therefore, that exception does not violate the guarantee of equal protection.”

575 So.2d at 556. Thus, contrary to the defendants’ claim, the legislative classification of wrongful-death cases does further a legitimate state interest: protecting the lives of its citizens. Nothing before us indicates that our holding in Turner was either incorrect or is due to be revisited. Thus, stare decisis requires our adherence to the resolution of the defendants’ argument mandated by Turner.

In other words, you cannot ask a jury or judge to award compensatory damages, i.e.: loss of a life, value of a life, loss of income, etc.  You can only ask the judge or jury to punish the wrongdoer and send a message to prevent the event from occurring.  What’s the rationale behind this?  Our Supreme Court has held the following:

 The rationale underlying the Alabama Wrongful Death Act, which allows recovery of punitive damages only, “rests upon the Divine concept that all human life is precious.” Estes Health Care Centers, Inc. v. Bannerman, 411 So.2d 109, 113 (Ala.1982) (emphasis added). Thus, in argument counsel must distinguish between the value of human life in general, as opposed to the value of a particular life–a distinction that is not always easy to articulate.  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).

Consequently, in Alabama, the family of this child could only sue to punish Disney for their wrong and to send a message to other public places to protect society from such reptiles.  Florida law is different.  Alabama is the ONLY State in the country that does not allow for compensatory damages in wrongful death claims.  What do you think about that?