A wrongful death settlement is often reached when an individual or a company is responsible for the loss of a life.
However, limits are placed on the recovery if the action was previously the subject of a personal injury action. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled on the extent of that limitation this summer.
In the case of Bibbs et al. v. Toyota Motor Corporation the northern district of Georgia asked the Supreme Court to make a ruling on two key questions, namely:
- Under Georgia law, are damages in a wrongful death case brought by the survivors of a decedent limited by a settlement entered in a previous personal injury suit settling all claims in that lawsuit?
- If the answer is yes, what components of wrongful death damages are not allowed in the action?
The case concerned a woman who left in a coma after a car wreck. The woman’s relatives sued the car company Toyota in a defective products action. However, a large payout in a previous personal injury suit limited the subsequent wrongful death settlement.
In the Supreme Court, Justice Keith Blackwell concluded that, while a personal injury settlement for the woman substantially limited the family’s ability to recover money in a wrongful death suit, the family could still claim some non-economic damages for the loss of the woman’s life.
The wrongful death case was brought against Toyota Motor Corp. and Toyota Sales USA by the family of Delia Bibbs. The woman died after more than two decades in a coma after she suffered terrible injuries in a car crash in 1992.
Bibbs’ husband, sued the Japanese companies as her guardian. He claimed a defective door-locking mechanism and seat belt latch in his wife’s 1986 Toyota YR2 van resulted in her severe injuries. The claim against Toyota led to an award of more than $36 million.
The settlement freed the Japanese carmaker of liability for all damages and claims. No wrongful death claim could be made at the time. Although Bibbs was unlikely to recover from the coma, she remained alive.
Two decades later, when Bibbs died, her husband and children filed a wrongful death suit against Toyota. The car manufacturer claimed the earlier settlement limited the family to claiming funeral expenses.
The Supreme Court found that, although the settlement agreement did not bar plaintiffs from bringing a wrongful death suit, it prevented claims for the same damages that could or were claimed in the prior personal injury action. This overlap includes both lost earnings and loss of enjoyment of life, Blackwell ruled.
An overlap may not always exist between personal injury and wrongful death claims. A personal injury lawsuit may award only past economic damages. A wrongful death action brought later may seek further economic losses caused by the accident victim’s death. However, in Bibbs’ case, her family claimed significant future economic losses in the personal injury suit because she was left in a coma. A major overlap was present that limited the wrongful death settlement.
Arguments that double recovery should be allowed because Georgia’s wrongful death statute is punitive were dismissed by the judge. Blackwell said:
“We have never interpreted the wrongful death statute to allow recovery of the very same damages that had already been recovered or released.”
The loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult things any family can deal with. Wrongful death cases may take many forms in Georgia. An experienced Newnan injury lawyer will take over your case and fight for your rights in a wrongful death suit. Please call us today at (404) 913-1529.