Unique Aspects of Wrongful Death Cases in Georgia

Wrongful death cases in Georgia are unique in many respects. Unlike some personal injury cases, there are actually two separate and distinct claims for wrongful death. Another aspect to these claims is the ‘hierarchy of people,’ such as a spouse or a child, that are permitted to bring a claim. Damages are recoverable by both the estate of the deceased person and the wrongful death claim itself. Notably, the full value of a person’s life is measured from the perspective of the deceased person, as opposed the the perspective of that person’s family and friends.

TWO TYPES OF WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIMS

While it’s understood that a wrongful death case stems from the loss of a loved one, many people are unfamiliar with the underlying legal claims. There are actually two different claims. The first claim is a traditional wrongful death action, and the second is a separate and distinct claim brought by the estate of the deceased person.

  • Wrongful Death Claim: Georgia law allows for the recovery of the full value of the life of the deceased person. The spouse of the deceased person will usually bring this claim. If the spouse is unable to bring a claim, then the “next of kin,” such as the sons and daughters, will be responsible for bringing the case.
  • Estate Claim: Unlike a wrongful death claim, an estate claim is filed by the estate. This claim is aimed at measuring the value of the deceased person’s life, but rather it is brought to recover the expenses of the estate, like burial and funeral costs, as well as any pain and suffering by the deceased person.

THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

The statute of limitations means the time allowed to bring a case before it is barred by Georgia law. In Georgia there is typically a two year statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim. Depending on certain facts and circumstances, this period may be longer or shorter for a case. The statute of limitations begins to run at the time of the negligent act. For example, a loved one may have been in a serious tractor-trailer accident and been hospitalized for several weeks before ultimately losing his or her life. The statute of limitations begins to run at the time of the negligent act, i.e. the accident, as opposed to the time the person passed away. This situation often presents itself when a person survives for many months or perhaps even years after the accident so the key is obtaining legal counsel right away to ensure the at-fault party will be held accountable under the law.

A HIERARCHY OF PEOPLE

Georgia law basically has established a hierarchy of relatives who are permitted to bring a wrongful death case. The purpose of this system is avoiding multiple family members brining identical claims. The order is rather intuitive, as follows:

  • Spouse: The spouse is the first person with a right to bring a wrongful death claim. If the deceased person had a spouse and children, then that the spouse is legally required to bring a claim on his or her own behalf and also on behalf of any children.
  • Children: If the deceased person did not have a spouse, then the children are vested with the wrongful death claim, and they have a right to file suit. They would then split the award evenly amongst themselves.
  • Parent: If the deceased person did not have a spouse or children, then any surviving parent would be the proper person to bring the wrongful death claim.
  • Estate: If deceased person does not have any family, then that person’s estate will also have the right to bring the wrongful death claim. The recovery would then be divided up based on the Georgia probate rules.

DAMAGES FOR THE WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM

As a general framework, the damages for this part of the claim again are the “full value” of the life of the deceased person measured from his or her own perspective. The factors are both economic and non-economic. The economic factors include the amount of lost wages assuming the person was working at the time of his or her death. To calculate this amount, it is important to consider the deceased person’s salary, job benefits, like a 401(k) and bonuses. Whereas, the non-economic factors include the intangible value of missing his or her children, a lifetime with his or her spouse along with the enjoyments of daily life. Establishing a concrete monetary figure is a difficult process because compensation can never truly heal a family, but there are tools such as a life-expectancy table to understand the likely amount of time lost as a result of an untimely death.

DAMAGES FOR THE ESTATE CLAIM

As a threshold matter, an estate needs to be set up for the deceased person. If the deceased person left with a will, then there will most likely be a representative for the estate. If, however, the person did not have a will, which is called intestate, then there are a set of laws in Georgia to determine the representative. The representative will have the authority to hire an attorney, dictate the course of the case, and ultimately agree to a settlement.

While it is relatively easy to calculate some parts of the estate claim, such a funeral costs and medical expenses, the more challenging part is determining whether or not there was pain and suffering for the deceased person. If the person immediately lost his or her life, then there may not be a claim. Interestingly though, Georgia law does allow recovery for even a few seconds of conscious pain. If the person lived for a period of time, then there will be a claim for pain and suffering for the estate. The decision is left to the “enlightened wisdom of a fair and impartial jury.” This standard is obviously a bit ambiguous so it is crucial to have an attorney, doctor(s), and other experts that will make a clear presentation to the jury about the scope of the pain and suffering for the deceased person.

If you have lost a loved one because of the negligence of another person or company, then please contact us right away for your free consultation. We understand that these are truly challenging times for you and your family members and will treat you with the utmost of compassion and respect. At the same time, we will make sure to gather all of the critical information to advance your case to ensure the justice your lost loved one deserves. Kevin can be reached at kevin@patricktriallaw.com or (404) 566-5880.