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A Thorough Guide for Understanding the Value of a Loved One’s Life After a Wrongful Death

Hopeless and upset man and woman in therapy.

When a person dies due to injuries caused by a negligent person or business, their loss is viewed as a “wrongful death” in the eyes of the law. Certain family members have the right to pursue a wrongful death claim against the negligent party.

Filing a wrongful death claim allows a grieving family to collect monetary compensation (referred to as “damages”) for the loss of their loved one. Damages are awarded to ease the financial suffering of the deceased’s family, especially if the deceased was the primary provider.

As Georgia wrongful death attorneys, we will examine the parameters a person should consider when attempting to estimate the value of the deceased’s life.

Georgia Wrongful Death Law

The measure of damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death action is set forth in the wrongful death chapter of the Georgia Code (§ 51-4-1). The law allows claimants to file for the “full value of the life of the decedent”.

The “full value” is composed of two elements:

  1. The economic value of the deceased (using normal life expectancy). This includes items that have proven monetary value, such as loss of potential lifetime earnings and income.
  2. The intangible elements whose value must be subjectively quantified, such as loss of society, advice, friendships, and other things as determined by the enlightened conscience of the jury.

Economic Damages

Economic damages are calculated based upon the projected lifetime earnings of the decedent (i.e., what would they have made over their lifetime in compensation). A pension, retirement plan, social security, veteran’s benefits, and any other current or future benefits may also be included.

Fringe benefits should also be factored into economic damages. This could include items such as health insurance or the value of the time the decedent spent performing work around the home.

If the decedent was self-employed, tax returns are key.

Once these damages are calculated, they must be reduced to present cash value. This is when an economist’s expertise is worth the time and expense in tabulating these economic damages.

If the decedent is a child who has never been employed, then there is obviously no track record of earnings upon which to base their economic loss. If they have been in school for some time and have a record of performing well and getting good grades, an argument can be made this would have continued in the future. One should still factor in the contributions the child made around the home in helping and serving their parents as a part of the economic loss.

Intangible Elements

Intangible elements are subjective aspects of the deceased that hold great meaning for family and friends, and their loss negatively impacts those left behind. Testimony from family members and friends is extremely important to prove these damages to a jury.

Witnesses who knew the decedent can testify about them and their personality, as well as other topics that may include:

  • Charitable/philanthropic involvements
  • Clubs and other civic organizations
  • Community involvement
  • Hobbies/interests
  • Personal/retirement goals
  • Relationship with co-workers
  • Relationship with family
  • Relationship with friends
  • Religious activities
  • Sports activities
  • Volunteer activities

Estate Claims

In addition to being able to pursue a claim for the full value of the decedent’s life (including both economic and intangible elements), another claim is vested in the estate of the deceased. Georgia Code 51-4-5(b) states:

“When death of a human being results from a crime or from criminal or other negligence, the personal representative of the deceased person shall be entitled to recover for the funeral, medical, and other necessary expenses resulting from the injury and death of the deceased person.”

This claim can only be brought by the decedent’s estate to remedy the financial losses related to the person’s death, including:

  • any medical expenses that relate to their injury (this could include EMTs or ambulance, air ambulance, emergency room, etc.);
  • funeral and burial expenses;
  • and conscious pain and suffering endured by the decedent immediately before their death.

The decedent’s estate must be established by a probate court (or some other court with jurisdiction) to enable the personal representative to recover these expenses.

Georgia courts have not allowed punitive damages (those sought to punish the defendant for bad conduct or deter them from repeating these acts in the future) in a wrongful death claim.

However, these damages may be sought on behalf of the estate if the defendant’s conduct was malicious, intentional, or showed a conscious or callous disregard for the deceased’s well-being or safety. Examples could include the defendant driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol in a motor vehicle wreck which causes the decedent’s injuries and death.

Guidelines for Proving Damages

Proving damages is an area that requires time-intensive research and work. A wrongful death attorney may have to ask deeply personal and tough questions of the surviving family members to truly understand who the decedent was during their life.

The wrongful death of an individual can have various effects on the surviving family members depending upon the roles the decedent held within the family. For example, the death of a working spouse may be felt in different ways than the death of a child.

An experienced wrongful death lawyer needs to have a plan regarding which questions to ask, what areas to research, and how to present evidence so a jury can understand the unique damages suffered by the family left behind.

It is critical to have a list of questions and a checklist of items when investigating a wrongful death claim. The questions will vary based on whether the death involved a spouse, child, or parent.

These lists should be used as a starting point for lawyers and family members when discussing the wrongful death claim. Find the uniqueness of the decedent — highlight the beauty of their familial relationships. Humanize the victim and the losses felt by their absence.

Single woman alone swinging on the beach and looking at the other empty seat

Death of a Spouse

After a person gets married, there is often the expectation that the two of them will grow old and spend many years together. A wrongful and unexpected death can leave the remaining spouse incredibly bereft and heartbroken.

When discussing the life of the deceased spouse, consider the following questions:

Marriage and Relationship

  • How did the couple meet? How long did they date?
  • How did the proposal go?
  • How long was the engagement before the marriage?
  • What are some special moments spent together?
  • What tragedies did the couple overcome/experience together?
  • In what ways did they help around the home?

Familial Relationships

  • If the decedent has children, how involved were they in their lives (birth, school, extracurricular and parent involvement, etc.)? What were their parenting responsibilities?
  • Were any children adopted, or were there plans for adoption?
  • Did the decedent struggle with fertility issues, or suffer any miscarriages?
  • Are their parents still alive? What is their relationship with them?
  • Did they perform activities with parents (traditions, visitations, economic support, etc.)
  • Did they interact with their siblings (activities, traditions, visitations, economic support, etc.)

Personal Life

  • What were their dreams and aspirations?
  • Did they have any favorite holidays, special traditions, or trips that they enjoyed?
  • What will they miss doing the most?
  • What were their hobbies/passions?
  • What did they love to do in the evenings and on weekends?
  • What key activities in the future will they miss?

Professional Life

  • What was their occupation/work history?
  • Did they serve in the military?
  • Did they win any awards or go to college?
  • What kind of income or financial support did they bring in?
  • Did they make any investments?

Special Items

  • Death certificate
  • Marriage license
  • Wedding photos
  • Family photos
  • Special portraits or paintings
  • Travel photos
  • Special gifts (anniversaries, key events, birthday parties, etc.)

Health Before Accident

  • How was their health? Did they take care of themselves (annual physical, dental visits, diet, exercise, etc.)?
  • What kind of diseases or health issues did they have to manage?
  • What kind of prescriptions or tests did they need to take?
  • What kind of physicians/specialists did they see?

Financial Concerns

  • Accidental death policies
  • Bills
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Financial advisor/accountant records
  • Mortgage
  • Outstanding loans or taxes
  • Private school and college tuition for kids
  • Retirement

Negatives to Discuss

  • Were there problems with the marriage? Any infidelities, separations, divorces, counseling, etc.?
  • Did the deceased struggle with addictions, alcohol, drugs, overworking, etc.?
  • Did they have an arrest record?
  • Did the deceased have any enemies or those who were critical of them?
  • Were there any issues between them and their children, parents, siblings, co-workers, neighbors, etc.?
  • Do they have an ex-spouse or other children outside the current marriage?

Death of a Child

The unexpected loss of a child can feel overwhelming. Their life was cut short before they could fully pursue their dreams, and they’ll no longer be a part of their family and friends’ lives. Because the death of a child after an accident can be such a traumatic experience, it is recommended parents and siblings receive grief counseling as soon as possible.

When discussing the life of the deceased child, consider the following questions:

Familial Relationships

  • How have the parents, siblings, grandparents, classmates, friends, teammates, tutor(s), etc., been impacted?
  • Did they have any special bonds, best friends, or romantic relationships?
  • Did they have a favorite teacher or mentor?
  • Did they have any pets?

Personal Life

  • What was their overall personality?
  • What special moments together, activities, holidays, etc., did they look forward to?
  • Were they part of any sports teams, clubs, etc.?
  • Did they involve themselves in community programs, religious activities, charities, etc.?
  • What were their academic strengths and weaknesses? Did they enjoy school?
  • Have they won any awards, prizes, contests, etc.?
  • What did they think about doing or studying when they grew older?
  • What were their interests, favorite hobbies, games, books, etc.?
  • What events will they miss out on in the future?

Around the Home

  • What activities would they do at home?
  • Did they help around the home? How often?
  • What were their favorite meals?

Physical and Emotional Health

  • Did they have any health issues, mental or physical?
  • Did they go to counseling or take medication?
  • Were there any disciplinary problems, arrests, drug/alcohol abuse, etc.?

Special Items

  • Family photos (including vacations, baby albums, favorite photos, etc.)
  • Special portraits or paintings
  • Special gifts from key events and birthday parties
  • Yearbooks, school annuals, newspapers, etc.
  • Sample school work/projects

Death of a Parent

Children often don’t consider a parent’s death until they are older. But no matter how old a parent gets, their death can still come as a shock. This is especially true if they were killed by a reckless driver or unsafe work environment. Young children, in particular, may have trouble processing or understanding their parent’s death.

When discussing the life of the deceased parent, consider the following questions:

Personal Life

  • How involved were they in their children’s lives?
  • What activities and hobbies would the child(ren) do with the deceased parent?
  • Did they help with schoolwork, sports, etc.?
  • Were there any miscarriages or adoptions?
  • What did they enjoy about being a parent?
  • What family trips did they look forward to?
  • What do the children miss most about the parent?

Special Items

  • Death certificate
  • Family photos, including vacations, baby albums, favorite photos at home, and work
  • Special portraits or paintings
  • Important travel photos (honeymoon, anniversary, etc.)
  • Special gifts (anniversaries, key events, birthday parties, etc.)
  • Special moments together

Surviving Children

  • Have they received any counseling since the death of the parent?
  • Do the children have anyone to confide in or meet with about the death?
  • Do the children talk about the parent or the death?
  • Do the children express any worries or concerns about the future?
  • Have they experienced any other deaths, such as a parent, grandparent, sibling, close friend, pet, etc.?
  • What have the children’s relationship with the surviving parent, their friends, and other family members been like since the death?
  • Do they have any physical or mental health issues?
  • Any behavioral or mood changes, weight loss, sleep deprivation, change in grades at school, etc.?

Questions to Discuss About the Wrongful Death

Use the following prompts when discussing the cause and nature of a loved one’s wrongful death.

  • How did it happen?
  • What was the decedent doing at the time? Why? Who was with them?
  • Was there any pain and suffering prior to their death?
  • Did they know that their death would happen immediately prior to their death?
  • Did a family member or friend witness the event or death?
  • Where did the decedent die?
  • Did they have to be removed from life support?
  • Was an autopsy performed?
  • Was the decedent an organ donor?
  • How did they wish their remains to be handled?
  • When and how were family members informed of the incident and death? Who notified them? What was their reaction?

Should You Hire a Wrongful Death Attorney?

When our Georgia wrongful death lawyers meet with a decedent’s family members, it is a time for compassionate listening. More than likely, the family is angry and upset about what happened to their loved one and the effects this devastating tragedy has had on their family. This is especially true if the decedent was the primary provider or caregiver.

When we put our feet under the same conference room table or sit on the couch in the homes of these families, we understand that we are a part of the comfort and grieving process. We are both legal counselors and a support group. We are there for answers, and we are there to listen.

If you have questions or concerns about the death of a loved one after a negligent or malicious accident, call Gary Martin Hays & Associates for help with filing a wrongful death claim. Our team of lawyers has helped many grieving families attain justice, and they can help yours, too.

Contact us today for a free consultation.

This article is based on an excerpt from The Authority on Wrongful Death Claims in Georgia, authored by Attorneys Gary Martin Hays and Sarah Jett.

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