Archive for the ‘Damages’ Category

Georgia vs. Alabama

August 9, 2007

They are similar states located right next to each other, but their laws are so different.  In Alabama, if an individual is killed in an accident, the damages available to the family are strictly punitive.   In other words, the family can only ask a jury to punish the person at fault.  No compensatory damages are available to the family.  So, if a father of two who was 38 years old and earned $60,000.00/year was killed by a person who ran a red light, the family could not ask the jury to compensate them for the present value of his future earnings over his life expectancy (approximately 37 years).  In addition, if he was not killed instantly and spent two or three months in the hospital, the family could not ask a jury to compensate them for his medical expenses or pain and suffering (unless a lawsuit was filed while he was alive).

In Georgia, things are much different.  Not only could the family ask for the father’s future life earnings, but they could also ask for his pain and suffering, the cost of his medical care, and the value of his life.  In addition, if the person at fault deserved punishment, the family could ask for punitive damages as well.

In Alabama, if two people are in a car accident, the insurance company for the person at  fault (assuming they have insurance which is a big assumption in Alabama) usually pays the damages.  However, if the injured party is forced to file suit, that party cannot mention the other party’s insurance carrier.  For example, if John Doe runs his vehicle into Mary Smith’s vehicle and injures Mary Smith, Mary Smith can only file a lawsuit against John Doe, not against his insurance company, say Allstate.  Mary Smith can never tell the jury that John Doe has insurance with Allstate, but John Doe can tell the jury that Mary Smith had BlueCross BlueShield to cover her medical expenses.  So, some juries are left wondering if John Doe has insurance to cover the claim.

What’s Georgia’s answer to this issue?  Georgia has a “direct action” statute.  That statute says that an injured party may file a lawsuit against the party at fault AND his insurance company.  Consequently, in the example above, Mary Smith would file the lawsuit against both John Doe AND Allstate, and the jury is aware that John Doe has automobile insurance coverage.

Which laws make more sense? Alabama’s or Georgia’s?  Shouldn’t a family be able to recovery something to help them with the loss of the father and husband?  Even if it’s just a little bit, it helps the family get back on their feet while they suffer through their grief.  Shouldn’t we be above board with our juries?  Why hide the fact that a party has insurance coverage?  Isn’t that what it’s there for, and shouldn’t the jury be able to know that?  My answer is yes, what’s yours?

Jon E. Lewis, of the law firm Lewis & McAtee, P.C., is a licensed and practicing attorney in Alabama and Georgia.  You can read about these and many other issues at the firm’s many websites.

“No Reservations” Illustrates Emotional Damages

July 29, 2007

The other night, I saw the movie “No Reservations” with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart.  This was a wonderful movie about the culinary arts, but even more so, this was a movie about great loss, life adjustments, and love.  The movie reminded me why “pain and suffering”, “mental anguish”, and “emotional distress” are significant elements of damages for a family that loses a loved one as a result of the negligence, wantonness, or intentional acts of another.

In the movie, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ sister dies in a car accident, and Catherine Zeta-Jones becomes the guardian for her niece.  Catherine must totally revamp her lifestyle in order to care for her niece.  She has to change her work schedule, hire babysitters, get her niece to school, and all of this must be accomplished while she herself must mourn for the loss of her sister.  In the same breadth, we see the niece suffer through the significant emotional loss of her mother. 

While accidents happen, our tort system is intended to allow for compensation for these types of losses and damages.  Of course, money cannot bring back the mother and sister of these movie characters, but it is the only way to compensate these individuals, and given the significant life changes and emotional losses, money allows them to have one less worry.  Money allows people to move through the suffering and adjust to the unexpected situation.

This movie shows us why Alabama’s wrongful death statute is so ridiculous and inadequate.  In Alabama, the only damages recoverable under the wrongful death act are punitive damages, i.e.:  damages to punish the wrongdoer.  All of the other 49 states allow for compensatory damages for the decedent’s family.  In a case were the wrongdoer did not intend to kill the victim, it is difficult to convince a jury the wrongdoer should be punished.  Why should this be the case?  Are the other 49 states wrong?  If a person is not paying attention, runs a red light, and kills another person, it’s hard to get a jury to punish them, but shouldn’t the family be entitled to compensation nevertheless?

When death occurs as a result of another’s mistake, lives are affected.  Compensation allows for those whose lives are affected to make it through a very difficult time.  It’s time our State realized what the others realized long ago.

Life’s Worth

April 15, 2007

What is a life worth?  Ask the families of the astronauts who perished aboard the space shuttle Columbia.  This is a very difficult question to answer when injury and death occur as a result of another person’s or company’s fault, but it is the only method we have for legal redress.  Obviously, we cannot bring people back or put individuals back to the position they were in before an accident so money compensation is all we have.

According to the Associated Press, $26.6 million was paid to the families of the astronauts, but this amount was not divided equally.  Jon Clark, the husband of astronaut Laurel Clark, was quoted as saying, “We had to prove our loved ones were worth something.”  Apparently, those astronauts with doctoral degress received a little more than those with masters degrees.  Should that matter when we are discussing human life?  Is a garbage collector worth less than a physician?  As far as income, yes.  However, a garbage collector may mean more to his family than the doctor.

None of that matters in Alabama because our wrongful death law is different from all other forty-nine (49) states.  In Alabama, the victim’s family can only claim punitive (punishment) damages for wrongful death.  Consequently, future income is irrelevant in a wrongful death claim in Alabama.  Does that make sense?  No, but that’s Alabama for you.


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