Wrongful Death Trials and Damages

DC wrongful death attorney John Yannone discusses wrongful death trials and how damages are awarded.

What is the Trial Process like for Wrongful Death Cases?

Well again it’s a little different not having the victim of the negligence and so therefore you are relying on other witnesses to establish things about the decedent and establish the relationship that the parties had prior to death. Medical experts are used to establish issues such as causation of death, meaning was it caused by the negligence. So it is a little different in terms of proving things all by others since you don’t have the decedent to testify.

How Often are Wrongful Death Cases Litigated at Trial?

They certainly are litigated. Usually the catastrophic nature of the damages in wrongful death cases gives pause to defendants wanting to go forward to trial, but it depends upon the issues. A lot of focus is on liability as to whose fault it was, and then causation as to whether that breach of duty, or breach of the standard of care, was actually the cause of death. The issues that are fought over most in those cases are on damages, in terms of extent of damages and as to whether there is agreement on that or not. In addition, there is a focus on the degree to which the relationship between can be established since that loss of the relationship forms the basis of the damages. Those are the issues that are fought with the primary ones being fault and whether that caused the death. But if those can be established, with the catastrophic nature of the damages being death, a number of times these cases can be resolved either by way of settlement or by way of mediation.

What Damages May Be Awarded in a Wrongful Death Claim?

Wrongful death being the survivors. Again, the law of estates determines who the survivors are and what the order of preference is, and according to the law it is the spouse and minor children if they survived. If neither survived then it goes down the order I listed before. Generally speaking, the damages that can br brought for all three jurisdictions of Maryland, DC, and Virginia are for loss of love and affection, loss of society, companionship, advice, and also for household services. There is one exception: DC does not allow recovery for grief.

How are Damages Determined?

If the survivors were being financially supported by the decedent, then obviously there would be an economic loss, and that support would be compensated for by damages. In order to prove economic loss or loss of support by the deceased, you would have an economist come in and determine what those support numbers are over what work-life expectancy. Loss of household services can also be put into numbers by an economist. And, depending upon the person’s employment history, there may be the need for a vocational rehabilitation expert to testify as to what that person’s career would look like, and what promotions, raises, and the like would happen over time to determine earning capacity over that person’s lifetime. Therefore, to calculate the damages based on loss of earnings, an economist would put numbers to it and calculate that over their lifetime. As for the loss of love and affection and those kinds of damages, that’s essentially developed by relationship witnesses that would come in and testify as to what their loss was as a result of the death of their loved one. So that becomes factual determination by the witnesses themselves.